HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Todd Hamilton is still trying as hard as ever. It hasn’t always looked that way.
At the Verizon Heritage, though, there’s been no doubt, as the 43-year-old Hamilton continued his revival with a 66 that left him a stroke behind Brian Gay on Friday.
“You’ve accomplished what you’ve dreamt of, what you set out to do,” Hamilton said. “And although I didn’t quit trying to do well, it looks as though once I won The Open Championship, it looks like I just kind of quit trying to achieve things.”
Hamilton, whose five-year PGA Tour exemption expires after this season, played solidly at Augusta National last week to finish tied for 15th. He kept up his stellar play at Harbour Town Golf Links, posting two sub-70 scores at a tournament for the first time this season.
Hamilton doesn’t know why things went sideways after 2004. That was when he won twice and set a career best with more than $3 million in winnings. But early during 2005, “I just lost it,” he said.
“And if I knew, I’d be in Vegas,” he joked. “I wouldn’t be playing golf.”
Hamilton got going with three birdies over four holes of his starting nine. He put a pitching wedge about 3 feet away on No. 13 for the first birdie, knocked in a 12-footer on the par-3 14th and then added an 8-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole.
Hamilton closed with a birdie for the second straight day, rolling in a 10-foot putt on the ninth.
There’s no mystery about Hamilton’s improved play. He said he has worked hard on his iron, wedge and bunker play, “some things I haven’t been doing well over the last four years.”
He’ll have to keep it up over the weekend to overtake Gay, who has steadily improved over his 11 full seasons on the PGA Tour.
His best year came in 2008 with his first career victory at the Mayakoba Golf Classic and a personal high of more than $2.2 million in earnings.
He used six birdies on the front nine, including five straight, to take the lead.
Gay’s streak began when he rolled in an 18-footer for birdie on the par-3 4th hole, then picked up steam with a 25-foot putt a hole later. His approach from a fairway bunker landed inside 5 feet for a third straight birdie.
After a birdie putt inside 10 feet on the seventh, Gay closed the stretch with another sizable putt of 20 feet to reach 10 under.
Gay had a chance from 15 feet away on the ninth hole to keep things going, but settled for par.
He was well shy of the PGA Tour mark of eight straight birdies. Last year, champion Boo Weekley and Jay Williamson each had streaks of five consecutive birdies at Harbour Town.
Gay made his only bogey on the 10th hole, then parred in to hold on to the lead.
He’s had his struggles here, missing the cut six times in his nine previous trips. And Gay felt as challenged Friday with the swirling winds, despite his charge.
“Heck, I was as surprised as anybody” about his birdie run, he said.
Two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen (70) and first-round leader Alex Cejka (71) were tied two strokes behind Gay.
The highlight for Janzen was a hole in one on the breezy 17th that moved him to a shot off the lead. Janzen’s 8-iron tee shot took three hops, rolled against the pin and dropped in.
“It was just drawing a little bit, bounced right towards the hole and when somebody said, ‘Go in,’ I was just waiting for the reaction up on the green,” Janzen said.
Two-time defending champ Weekley nearly shot himself out of the tournament early on. He made three bogeys and a double bogey when he four-putted the simple par-4 9th from 14 feet away.
However, Weekley rebounded with three birdies coming in to finish 1-under, eight shots back.
“You never know what can happen on the weekend,” he said.