Jason Day and Marc Leishman kept the Australian flag flying high at the RBC Heritage.
Four days after countryman Adam Scott became the first Australian to win the Masters, Day and Leishman shot 4-under 67 and trailed leader Brian Davis by two shots Thursday after the first round at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Davis lost a playoff to Jim Furyk in 2010 at Harbour Town after calling a penalty on himself. This time, the Englishman birdied eight of his final 14 holes for a 65 to pull past Day and Leishman, who were back in contention after falling short Sunday at Augusta National.
Kevin Streelman and Charley Hoffman were a stroke behind Davis at 66, while Johnson Wagner also shot 67. U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson led a large group at 68.
Day and Leishman can’t make history for their country at the RBC Heritage – only enhance it. Several Aussies have won at Harbour Town, including Graham Marsh in 1977 and Greg Norman 11 years later. Aaron Baddeley was the last Australian to take the champion’s tartan jacket in 2006.
”For a population that I think is around 23 million people in Australia, and the last time I checked the land size is a little bit bigger than North America,” Day says. ”We do pretty well in sports.”
That’s been apparent on the PGA Tour in recent weeks.
Scott, Day and Leishman were all in hunt at Augusta National on the back nine until Scott, the most experienced of the Aussie trio, rose up at the end and beat Angel Cabrera in a playoff. Day finished third and Leishman tied for fourth, meaning all three are already qualified to return for the 2014 Masters.
There’s a lot of work ahead before then, Day said, especially with Davis playing Harbour Town as well as anyone in recent years.
Davis was toe-to-toe with Furyk three year ago until he brushed a loose reed with his club in the marsh area left of the 18th green. Davis immediately called the infraction, which essentially gave Furyk the crown.
Davis, never better than second on the PGA Tour, still gets stopped at country clubs and airports by admirers of his honest act on the course in a situation where victory would’ve made Davis’ career much smoother.
”I’d like to do something else in this tournament so I don’t get remembered just for that,” he said, chuckling.
If Davis keeps playing like he did in the first round, he might reach that goal come Sunday. He was 1 over on his first four holes when he put his approach on the par-5 fifth about 6 feet away for an eagle try. Davis missed and left disappointed with a birdie, but that began a run of eight birdies on his final 14 holes. He rolled in a 22-foot birdie putt on the tricky 17th hole to reach 6 under and score in the 60s for the 10th time in his last 13 rounds at Harbour Town.
”I wasn’t worried about my score or about my misses, I was just playing,” Davis said.
Day and Leishman excelled despite the fatigue that builds up playing a major – ”I felt like I was there for a month,” Day said of Augusta – and both found their stride in a group of three that included Simpson, who’ll defend his major championship in two months at Merion.
None of the three made bogey on the round. Simpson headed up a group three shots behind that included defending RBC Heritage champ Carl Pettersson and Bill Haas. Luke Donald, sixth in the world, was another stroke back at 69.
Leishman didn’t play much since last Sunday. He took an ocean swim Wednesday and felt refreshed and primed for another run to the top before some time away from the course. ”I’m planning on being in contention all week and then really enjoying my two weeks off,” he said.
Not all the Masters contenders who chose to play – there were 14 of the world’s top 29 golfers in the field – came back with a strong round. Brandt Snedeker, at No. 5 the highest-ranked player in the field, bogeyed four of his first nine holes and was eight shots back after a 73.
Snedeker came into last Sunday with a share of the Masters lead, but fell off with a final-round 75.
”A few loose shots here and there and maybe a little overconfidence,” Snedeker said. ”I was kind of thinking the course was going to be really easy. And it’s never easy. It’s a good little wake up call.”
Masters champion Scott is taking the week off, as are the world’s top two players in Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
Day and Leishman are glad for the strong start and eager to bring more golf glory to fans back home. ”It’s exciting for the future of Australian golf,” Leishman said. ”Hopefully, we can all keep playing well and keep the excitement levels up.”
DIVOTS: The field was increased to 144 players this week, a one-time bump to make up opportunities to play because of the PGA Tour’s switch to starting the 2014 season in October. This is the fifth of seven tour events affected. The final two this season are the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial next month and the AT&T National at Congressional in June. … It’s the second straight RBC Heritage without five-time champion Davis Love III. Love withdrew a year ago because of a cracked rib. This time, Love’s recovering from spinal-fusion surgery in February. Love also had bone spurs removed. … Tommy ”Two Gloves” Gainey holed out from 175 yards for an eagle-2 on the lighthouse 18th. The South Carolina native shot 70.