HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Davis Love III is back on top at Harbour Town.
The five-time tournament champion shot a 5-under 66 on Thursday for a share of the first-round lead in the Verizon Heritage with Justin Leonard and Lucas Glover.
The 44-year-old Love has struggled to bounce back from tearing ligaments in his left ankle last September. On Thursday, he shot his best round since August and gave him confidence things might keep improving at one of his favorite locales.
“It’s getting close,” Love said.
There have been many oddities for Love the past few months. He failed to qualify for the Masters, missing his first major championship since the 1990 U.S. Open.
“That was weird,” Love said.
He spent the week with family, hunting turkeys and only sparingly tuned in to Masters coverage to follow his buddy Fred Couples and Brandt Snedeker, who spend time in Love’s residence of Sea Island.
Love also worked to tune up his game to compete at a place where no one’s won as much as he has.
“You keep sticking the tokens in the machine, eventually you’ll get it right,” Love said.
Not that it’ll be easy.
Leonard, the 2002 Harbour Town winner, is coming off a top-20 finish at the Masters. Glover had his best finish of the year in his last event, a tie for 14th at the Shell Houston Open.
A large group a stroke behind the leaders included two-time Heritage winner Stewart Cink and Camilo Villegas. Jim Furyk, ranked No. 9 in the world, was another shot back at 68.
Snedeker was also in the mix after a 70. He tied for third at the Masters with Cink but probably gained as much attention for allowing the emotions and tears to flow when his chance at a green jacket fell apart last Sunday.
Ernie Els figured as a strong favorite here given his status (world’s third-ranked player) and Harbour Town history (seven top-10 finishes in nine starts). However, the “Big Easy” faltered with a 1-over 72 in a round that included only one birdie.
Love started quickly with four birdies in his first seven holes. He tied Leonard for the top spot with a birdie on the par-5 15th hole after landing his approach within 4 feet of the flag.
Leonard set the standard for much of the round, the former champion rolling in a birdie putt on the difficult closing lighthouse hole, No. 18. He finished with his lowest round in more than two months and cracked 70 for just the third time in his past 13 rounds.
This tournament is like a breath of fresh air compared with a pressure-packed week of Masters play, Leonard said. “You come here” to Harbour Town Golf Links, Leonard continued, “and you just kind of get embraced by the southern hospitality.”
Glover pushed to the top with five birdies over an eight-hole stretch. His back-to-back birdies on the 15th and 16th holes tied Leonard and Love.
Love admits he may never be 100 percent physically again as time goes on. He’s also struggling to maintain his focus instead of “checking out” for several holes a round.
“I felt like I was playing 14 holes,” Love said. “I’m leaving, mentally just leaving, losing touch there for a few holes every once in a while.”
The familiarity of Harbour Town helped Love stay on track. Success, though, was coming no matter the location, Love says.
“I have worked extremely hard this year to get the mind going,” he said. “I’m close and it’s got to pay off eventually.”
Divots: Justin Rose, No. 7 in the world, opened with a 5-over 76. He led the Masters last week with an opening 68, but has shot over par in his four rounds since. … Jay Williamson started his round with five straight birdies, tying for the best opening on tour this season. He finished with a 67. … U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger had an eagle 2 on the par-4 13th. He finished at 1-over 72.