He held a one-stroke edge over Arjun Atwal, Matt Bettencourt, Chad Campbell and Tim Herron and was two shots in front of Mark Wilson, Camilo Villegas and 2009 Heritage winner Brian Gay.
Luke Donald, No. 3 in the world, led a group at 67 in a round slowed by a rain delay of 2 hours, 16 minutes. Because of the delay, 18 players were unable to finish before dark.
Garrett Willis tees off on the first tee during the first round of The Heritage golf tournament in Hilton Head Island, S.C., Thursday, April 21, 2011. Willis finished at 7-under-par for the day.Donald could move to No. 1 with a win.
Willis entered The Heritage seeking answers to his poor putting. He brought four putters with him, had three more made at Harbour Town and had his father ship in three more.
Willis was ready to go with a belly putter he used in Tuesday’s practice round and in warmups before his starting time. Suddenly, Willis’ resolve disappeared and “Old Faithful” was back.
Willis’ choice looked a bad one when he missed a simple 12-footer for birdie on the first hole. His game – and attitude – changed for good on the next hole when he made an 8-foot birdie putt to start his run. “I said, ‘Wow, maybe I can make a putt,”’ Willis recalled.
Willis one-putted the next five holes, all for birdies, to move in front. Willis’ approach shots didn’t hurt, either – all his birdie putts were inside 15-feet. When bogeys on the ninth and 11th holes dropped him back, Willis returned the top thanks to his putter with birdies on the 15th and 16th holes, the last a tricky 15-footer.
“I made putts today that I normally don’t make,” he said.
“Very excited about putting this well, and having a chance to making the cut for a change.”
Donald, who won the Match Play Championship in February, is the highest ranked player in the field. He did little to hurt his chance for No. 1, rallying from a sluggish start with three birdies over his final six holes.
“A lot of people are telling me about” number one, Donald said. “So it’s hard to put out of your brain. But that would be awesome.”
Defending champion Jim Furyk and reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, fifth in the world, were in a pack at 68.
Ernie Els, 15th in the rankings, had a difficult start on a course he traditionally plays well with seven top 10s in 11 appearances. Els switched to a belly putter for the first round and struggled to a 75. Els also incurred a two-stroke penalty on his penultimate hole, the eighth, for testing the playing surface by raking a bunker of his footprints before his shot.
All but one of the eight top finishers teed off in the afternoon when the storm blew through Harbour Town and delayed the round. Bill Haas looked like he might chase down Willis with a tap-in birdie on No. 5 once play resumed to move a shot off the lead. But Haas followed with two bogeys and a triple bogey to fall back.
In all, seven of the world’s top 20 players teed off in what could be the final Heritage. The tournament, a PGA Tour fixture since 1969, is searching for a title sponsor, something both the tour and event organizers called essential for keeping the springtime tradition on the golf schedule.