In his third straight tournament since his U.S. team lost a big lead on the final day at Medinah, Love hit a 6-iron to 3 feet on the 17th hole that put him in the final group going into the weekend at The McGladrey Classic, where he is becoming more than just a tournament host.
Love was one shot behind Arjun Atwal, who is running out of time to keep his PGA Tour card. Atwal made an adjustment in his putting stroke earlier in the week and watched it pay off in a big way at Sea Island for a 63, his best score of the year.
Atwal, whose two-year exemption from winning in Greensboro, N.C., expires this year, is No. 175 on the money list and has only two tournaments left to finish in the top 125. He opened with three straight birdies and took the outright lead with a wedge into 5 feet on the fifth hole, his 14th of the round.
'I'm in a desperate situation,' Atwal said. 'I got no choice – either win or finish in the top two. So I've just got to grind it out.'
Atwal was at 10-under 130, though this tournament has a distinct Ryder Cup feel going into the final two days.
It starts with Love, the American captain, who moved to Sea Island when he was 14. What helped more than his course knowledge was switching to a belly putter that doesn't quite reach his belly, and not even his shirt 'unless it's untucked.' Brian Bateman, who is much shorter than Love, once used it as a belly putter and Love figures the fact that it's a heavy club and has a different look could only help him.
'I've been messing around with this putter for well over a year, I just haven't had the nerve to put it in play,' Love said. 'But I had two pro-ams this week so I said, `This is the best time – my home greens, two pro-ams on my home course.' So I tried it out and the first day I used it, I made eight birdies. So it worked.'
Love was tied with Jim Furyk, who hasn't played since his bogey-bogey finish in the Ryder Cup and is making his final PGA Tour appearance of the year. Furyk was plodding along at Sea Island, a few birdies on his card, when he rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on the 14th, converted a two-putt birdie from 100 feet away just off the green, and made a third straight birdie on the 16th from about 12 feet. He wound up with a 65.
'I felt a little rusty on the way in,' Furyk said. 'I have a lot of confidence in my ball striking right now, but when you don't play a lot, sometimes it's the course management, making the good decisions. And so far that's all kind of coming back to me slowly and I've kind of gained momentum as the last two rounds have gone on.'
David Toms was tied with them until he made bogey on the final hole for a 67, though he was still only two shots out of the lead. Bud Cauley, who shared the first-round lead, wasn't as crisp with his irons and had to settle for a 70. He also was two behind, still in great shape as he pursues his first PGA Tour win. Gavin Coles joined them at 132 after six birdies in a round of 65.
Despite all the familiarity at the top of the leaderboard, the McGladrey Classic remained wide open.
The cut was at 1-under 209, meaning all 88 players were within nine shots of the lead.
There has been very little wind along the South Carolina coast, and while the weather has been mild and dry, enough rain has fallen in the early morning hours that the greens remained soft. Love hit one 7-iron that plugged in its pitch mark.
Such ideal conditions allowed just about everyone to stay in the game.
Atwal struggled with a bad back early in the year when he opened the season by missing the cut in seven straight tournaments, one of them while playing in the same group with Tiger Woods at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. His chronic left knee is acting up now and he expects to have tests on it at the end of the year.
All he cares about now is getting a card for next year, a position with which he is familiar.
Two years ago, Atwal had to go through Monday qualifying for the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, and then he shot a 61 on his way to his lone PGA Tour victory. He recalls one year on the Nationwide Tour when he won late in the season to finish in the top 25 and earn back his Tour card.
More than injuries, he felt he spent too much time getting technical with his swing after changing coaches, and it took him until June before he stopping thinking and starting playing. He started making cuts, but he didn't make up much ground.
Love doesn't have to worry about his card, as a lifetime member with his 20 wins. The trick for the 48-year-old Love is to finish, which has been a problem this year amid all his Ryder Cup captaincy duties. But this would be a good place for that to change, on his home course and playing before hundreds of fans at a tournament that doesn't attract a big crowd. Love put on a show by making simple birdies on both par 5s and stuffing that 6-iron into tap-in range on the 17th.
Love isn't the least bit surprised. He was eager to get back to golf after the Ryder Cup and found he was throwing away too many shots in Las Vegas and California. Even on Friday, he twice made bogey with a wedge in his hand.
But he's only one shot back going into the weekend, and he has reason to hope that instead of giving out the trophy this year, he can take it.
'I'm hitting the ball real well,' he said. 'I wouldn't say I've gotten everything out of the day. But it's my home course, and I know my way around it. So hopefully, I can keep it going.'