HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Jimmy Walker was feeling like his old self after his second straight 6-under 65 on Friday — and so was Masters champion Jon Rahm halfway through the RBC Heritage.
Walker had his third straight round in the 60s overall to post a two-day total of 12-under 130 at Harbour Town, three shots better than Scottie Scheffler, Justin Rose and Xander Schauffele.
Rahm, who won at Augusta National last week — his second career major championship and his fourth PGA Tour win this season — recovered from his opening 1-over 72 on Thursday with a 64 to move to 6-under. He’s still got work ahead, although another victory seems much more doable for the world No. 1 than it did after the opening round.
Walker will try to maintain his strong play, something he’s struggled with since stepping away from the game amid a lengthy battle with Lyme disease.
“I haven’t put two really good rounds together back-to-back out here,” said Walker, who has missed eight cuts in his past 12 events.
He’ll need to do it against a major-quality field with seven of the world’s top 10 players competing for their share of a $20 million purse at the tour’s sixth designated event of the season.
Scheffler, No. 2 in the world, shot 65, Olympic Schauffele 66 and Rose 67 to reach 9-under. The trio all reached milestones in this event with Rose making his 400th tour start, Schauffele his 150th and Scheffler his 100th.
Patrick Cantlay, who lost in a playoff to Jordan Spieth a year ago at Harbour Town, was in a group of four another shot back. Cantlay’s round of 65 included a hole-in-one (his third career ace on tour) on the par-3 seventh.
Also at 8-under were Tommy Fleetwood (65), Mark Hubbard (66), first-round leader Aaron Rai (71) and Viktor Hovland (70).
Spieth (67) and Matt Kuchar (67), the 2014 champion, were part of a group of eight at 7-under.
Walker has won six times on tour, the last in 2016 at the PGA Championship, his only major championship and the culmination of a rise to become one of the top Americans in golf. In the fall of that year, he went on a hunting trip in south Texas and fell ill afterward. He was diagnosed with Lyme disease the following spring and battled its effects for years. When he stepped away from the tour last year, he wasn’t sure he would ever return.
But the start of the LIV Golf circuit, and those PGA Tour players who gave up membership, moved Walker into the top 50 all-time money winners. That meant one-time exemption to play on tour this year.
Walker wasn’t sure it was the right move, but supported by his family, he decided to come back. His return hasn’t been easy, but so far, it’s been a different story at Hilton Head.
Never the straightest driver, Walker has so far kept his ball in play at tight, tree-lined Harbour Town and made enough putts to move in front.
That was the case Friday as he made seven birdies, none from shorter than 7 feet. His most unlikely one came at the par-3 14th when he holed a putt of roughly 50 feet from off the green.
Walker hopes he can call on what’s worked so far on the weekend. The most difficult part, he said, is the inconsistency of how he feels.
“Since getting sick, mentally and physically feel different damn near every day, and that’s been the hardest part,” he said. “The things that work on one day, I can’t feel it the next day.”
Still, Walker’s never backed off when in the hunt and is ready to give it a go against a big-time field.
“I’ve never felt like I’ve ever been afraid to go win a golf tournament,” he said.
And neither has Rahm, who despite his Masters fatigue honored the commitment he and other top players made to play in the tour’s new designated events. He has a chance to collect this tournament’s plaid jacket to go along with his new green one.
Rahm put together a bogey-free round with seven birdies, flashing his best-in-the-world form early. He started on the back nine and had four straight birdies starting on the 11th hole. He rolled in a 33-footer on the par-3 14th.
There’s still work ahead to chase down Walker, but Rahm believes he can be a factor at the end.
“Today overall felt pretty good,” Rahm said. “I felt like my body was moving properly. Still not as good as I would like to be, but really, really good. So, hopefully, it can keep getting a little bit better.”
DIVOTS: World No. 7 Max Homa, No. 20 Kurt Kitayama and rising start Tom Kim were among the players who missed the cut. … U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson made 18 pars Friday, the first time in 1,641 stroke-play rounds on tour he’s done that.
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