HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SC — Harold Varner III blasted an 8-under 63 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead at the RBC Heritage to earn his first PGA Tour win.
Varner had eight birdies in a bogey-free round to match Cameron Young’s opening score as the week’s lowest score at Harbor Town Golf Links. Varner had an 11-under 202.
Varner needs to be just as crisp on Sunday as FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay, 2019 British Open winner Shane Lowry of Ireland and Erik van Rooyen of South Africa suffered a setback.
Cantlay, the second-round leader, had a 70. Lowry shot 65 and van Rooyen had a 67.
Former RBC Heritage champion Matt Kuchar, Hudson Swafford, Sepp Straka and Aaron Wise were 9 under. Swafford shot 66, Kuchar and Straka 67, and Wise 68.
Varner has two international wins to his name, winning the Australian PGA Championship in 2016 and the Saudi International in February.
He seemed to put himself out there with his Friday finish, going 4 over his last four holes for a 72. But it was a decision on the sixth that angered Varner – and spurred him on for Saturday.
Varner’s tee shot on the sixth par 4 was whistled wide. Varner told officers he saw a spectator pick up the ball, which was eventually identified as Varner’s, and he may have put it back past the out-of-bounds mark.
The decision was made and Varner then double bogeyed and raged about it. “I would say I’m really good at putting things aside, but I haven’t put that aside,” he said.
Instead, he used the frustrating finish to fuel his run to the front. Varner screwed four of his first six holes – including the problematic sixth – and took the lead on the 16th hole with a 10-foot shot.
Harbor Town is a far cry from Varner’s preferred layout — “It’s my favorite because we can race here,” said Varner, who lives in Gastonia, North Carolina — despite finishing second here last year and in six in the ’60s has shot his last seven rounds.
Varner said every shot here was “super uncomfortable.”
“I feel like I’m always kind of running it out there,” he said. “But if you can run it 72 holes, you can do some damage.”
Lowry, too, bounced back from a 72 on Friday to come within a shot of the lead. He was choppy at first, following birdies on the second and fifth holes with bogeys on the next. But he stabilized thereafter for 65, which matched his career low at Harbor Town.
Lowry said conditions, particularly Friday’s gusts of 20mph or more, had eased leaving the normally difficult course defenseless.
“Yesterday was one of those days when you have to close the hatches,” said Lowry.
“Whereas today I felt like every time you had a good number,” said Lowry, “you could really go for the flags. And I did and I took some good shots.”
He’ll need more of this Sunday if he hopes for his third career Tour win and first since the British Open in 2019.
Cantlay finished Friday with a swing — four straight birdies from 15th through 18th, the course’s toughest stretch — for a two-shot lead.
But he couldn’t find that often this round. He caught Varner with birdies on the sixth, seventh and ninth holes and then fell behind with bogeys on the 11th and 12th holes. On the 18th he drew within a shot of Varner, his approach landing within 5 feet for a closing birdie.
“It had some good, it had some not-so-good,” Cantlay said. “But I’m in a really good position for tomorrow. Especially with that final birdie on 18, get some momentum and I’m obviously right there.”
Tommy Fleetwood, who teed off more than 3.5 hours before Cantlay’s last pairing, posted a 64 to give a first indication of the very doable course.
Like Lowry, Maverick McNealy and Peter Malnati had 65s. Swafford, Wyndham Clark and Graeme McDowell scored 66s. Overall, 45 of the 71 participants were under 70.
On Friday, no one shot fewer than 67 and there were only 19 out of 130 players who had points in their 60s.