Rory Sabbatini didn’t have a good warmup session ahead of Thursday’s first round of the RSM Classic.
The weather wasn’t anything to rave about, either, as a biting chill was in the air and winds were whipping across the Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Georgia. And Sabbatini would play the Seaside Course, historically the harder and more exposed of the two tracks used for the tournament hosted by Davis Love III.
So Sabbatini, playing in the first group off, naturally birdied his first four holes and finished with a bogey-free 5-under-par 65 to grab a spot on the first page of the leaderboard.
“I was kind of going, I don’t know what’s going on here but I’m enjoying it,” said Sabbatini, who has overcome issues with his neck and is looking for his first win since the 2011 Honda Classic. “I didn’t feel like I hit the ball particularly well on the range and I didn’t feel like I was putting very good and all of a sudden it clicked on the golf course.
“This is a golf course, when you get opportunities, you’ve got to try to maximize them. Yet still, even with the conditions out there, if you try and maximize them, you’ve got to be careful you don’t mess up what you’re trying to maximize.”
RSM CLASSIC: Leaderboard
Sabbatini wasn’t the only one to get a handle on the tough – or as Zach Johnson said – brutal conditions. About 40 percent of the 155 players broke par despite high winds harshly impacting tee shots, approaches and putts.
Matt Wallace, who is using a local caddie after his regular caddie tested positive for COVID-19, finished with a par on his final hole despite taking a penalty drop and grabbed a share of the lead with a 6-under 64 on Seaside.
“Windy day,” said Wallace, who plays the majority of his golf on the European Tour. “The wind picked up as the day went on. It was really blustery and gusting up a good amount around the 13th, 14th where we go out to sea a little bit. Hitting a 5-iron from 150 yards is not normal, but I’m kind of used to that from being back home, just normally playing on links courses rather than these types of courses.
“Putted great. Got off to a nice start and holed a good putt on the third hole for bogey. Good momentum there. Carried it on till the end there.”
Joining Wallace at the top of the leaderboard was Camilo Villegas, whose 22-month-old daughter, Mia, died in July after battling cancerous tumors on her brain and spine. Villegas matched his career low on Seaside with a bogey-free 64.
“It was tough out here, but I love this place,” Villegas said. “I’ve been coming here since 2000 and it’s one of those stops I don’t like missing. I’ve been feeling good, to be honest.
“It was kind of nice this morning. I got on the range and see a little rainbow out there. I start thinking about Mia and said hey, let’s have a good one. She loved colors and rainbows. It was a nice way to start the day. It was a good ball‑striking round, it was a great putting round. I was pretty free all day. Like you said, it’s tough to be free under these conditions, but I found a way to do it.”
Joining Sabbatini at 5 under were seven players, including Cameron Tringale, Adam Long, Keegan Bradley and Doug Ghim, who all posted 5-under-par 67 on the inland Plantation Course.
Ten players, including local favorites Johnson, Harris English and 2015 RSM Classic winner Kevin Kisner, were at 4 under.
“Today was brutal. I mean, I don’t know what other guys are saying, but I played really, really, really good,” said Johnson, who lives within 10 miles of Sea Island Golf Club and played Seaside.
“I had opportunities that I didn’t even capitalize on, but I made some. I made two bogeys from the middle of the fairway straight into the wind, which you’re going to do. It was just very difficult, difficult to judge distance, trajectory. It was a survival test.”