Webb Simpson spent two days at Harbour Town watching bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau swing out of his shoes and realized his own brand of golf works just fine.
They traded birdies Friday morning in the RBC Heritage until Simpson got the last word with a 6-footer on his final hole for a 6-under 65 and a one-shot lead over DeChambeau and Corey Conners among early starters.
DeChambeau made six birdies on his final nine holes, missing a 5-footer on No. 9 for a 64. Conners had a bogey-free 63.
“It’s very satisfying knowing I’m not near as long as some of these guys and I’m able to kind of use my skills of distance control and shot shape to pick me back up when I’m 40 yards or 30 yards behind these guys,” Simpson said.
“I would like to hit it further,” he said. “I set out on a journey three years ago to get stronger, hit it further, but do it a lot slower than Bryson. But he’s made it look easy and seamless.”
Simpson was at 12-under 130 and waited to see if anyone could catch him on a Harbour Town course that is yielding low scores with relatively soft conditions and moderate wind.
DeChambeau stands out like the lighthouse behind the 18th green.
He decided at the end of last season to get stronger and bigger so he could swing faster and hit it longer, and the transformation has everyone’s attention. Even while adding 40 pounds of mass, he hasn’t lost his love for science. That was evident on his final hole.
DeChambeau had the honors and let Simpson go first so he could figure out what to do. Simpson poked his hybrid 221 yards down the fairway on the 334-yard ninth hole. DeChambeau opted for a 3-wood, mainly because he feared his driver would go well over the green.
He took two violent practice swings, and huffed out breath like an Olympic weightlifter preparing for the clean and jerk. He sent it soaring only to say, “Ah! Too much spin, dang it.”
It found a bunker in front of the green, 309 yards away, and he was far more bothered missing the short birdie putt, even though his 64 left him right in the mix again.
He hasn’t finished worse than a tie for fifth since February — only four tournaments because the pandemic shut down golf for three months.
Rory McIlroy played with him on Sunday at Colonial and was stunned how far — and straight — DeChambeau was smashing driver on a course renowned for placement.
“He’s been able to take this body that he’s never played with before and still play just as good, if not better,” Simpson said. “So that’s really impressive.”
The time off didn’t appear to hurt, and DeChambeau said time in the gym — and in the buffet line — allowed him to go from a ball speed of about 188 mph to the lower 190s. That doesn’t always work at Harbour Town, a tight course that winds through the oaks, and DeChambeau laments that he hasn’t been able to “launch the Kraken.”
At least he’s not holding back at dinner. DeChambeau says his fitness plan is a 2-to-1 ration of carbs and protein and “I literally just have it. I eat whatever, whenever.” The majority of bulk is muscle, all for more speed. He believes he can get it up to 197 mph on a course that allows for more drivers.
The biggest benefit is where it leaves him.
“The distance gain has helped me hit 9-irons and pitching wedges into holes compared to hitting 7-irons and 6-iron,” he said. “That’s a huge change for me that’s allowed me to go and attack flags a lot more, be more aggressive, not really have to try and fit it into this little spot down on the fairway out here and really attack those flags.”
Conners was poised to at least join Simpson in the lead except for missing a pair of birdie putts from the 10-foot range on his last two holes.
Ryan Palmer had a 67 and was two behind Simpson. Dustin Johnson, coming off a missed cut at Colonial, had a 66 and was in the group four shots behind.
Hilton Head typically follows the Masters in April, and it was returned to the schedule in June with a series of cancellations and postponements that created room. It’s a different look with Bermuda grass and minimal rough, and scoring has been lower than usual.
That didn’t help the top three players in the world, none of whom broke par in the opening round. Justin Thomas (66) and Jon Rahm (67) did enough to likely make the cut. Rory McIlroy, who opened with a 73, played in the afternoon.
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