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  • Wes Kerr

Plenty of tartan-worthy names on 2022 RBC Heritage leaderboard

The RBC Heritage faithful came back in full force for the first time since 2019, and the star-studded opening round on Thursday lived up to the hype. The 2022 tournament is as wide-open as any edition in recent memory, with world-class names adorned across the top of the leaderboard.


With the weekend’s weather in flux with rain in the forecast, Friday’s results could be even more important in picking out the contenders from a heap of talent. It’s a tough proposition to predict who’ll come out on top at this point, but there are a few who have the profile to be right in the mix come Saturday and Sunday.


He may not be in the lead right now, but Joaquin Niemann is shaping up to be the tournament favorite after the first quarter of play. Starting his week in a challenging afternoon window on Thursday, Niemann proved every bit of his top-15 world ranking with a 6-under 65 to put him just two shots off the blistering pace set by Cameron Young.


It was a crazy-good round from Niemann, and it could’ve been even better had he avoided early bogeys on 3 and 4. The 23-year-old Chilean’s approach game is as good as anyone on tour, and he has been an absolute shot-maker on an unforgiving Pete Dye track. Niemann has owned Harbour Town Golf Links in his first five competitive rounds, shooting a mind-boggling 25-under. Going off early Friday morning, with lighter breezes and slightly softer greens, could provide ideal conditions for Niemann to vault up the leaderboard and look to grab some important separation heading into the weekend.


But behind Niemann stands a group of seven names at 5-under par, some of whom fit the portrait of a Heritage champion. I picked Patrick Cantlay to take the tartan jacket at the tourney’s start, and we saw the potential for what could be a special week for the former UCLA Bruin. Like Niemann, the California native is outstanding around the greens and has built on a strong finish at Augusta. His putting has been inconsistent so far in 2022, but if he could recapture his second-place form from Phoenix, he’ll have a chance to find his way back in the winner’s circle.


There’s rarely a Heritage leaderboard without Corey Conners’ name, and the Canadian had a flair for the dramatic on Thursday to surge back to the top page. Conners conjured up a rare ace on the tough par-3 7th to join the packed cluster of names at 5-under. But sleeping in the weeds among the T3 crew could be Sepp Straka, who quietly fired a 66 in the challenging afternoon window. And with a chance at favorable conditions Friday morning, the opportunity will be there for the Austrian-born Georgia Bulldog to keep up the pace and hang around at the top.


This year’s pool of contenders could go even deeper. You could make a case for anyone sitting at 3-under or better to go on a run as we prepare for a pivotal Friday. Harold Varner III has been on a tear in the year’s biggest events with a top-10 at The Players and a top-25 at Augusta. He found a new gear after the magical 92-foot eagle putt to win the Saudi International and has developed one of the best swaggers on tour. It’s hard to deny that he should be in the running this weekend, especially if he comes out firing on Friday morning.


And don’t forget about Shane Lowry, who has been super consistent this year with top-15 finishes in his last four starts, including a T3 at The Masters. Another one should be a near-formality for the Irishman if he continues his strong form at Harbour Town, where he has two top-10s in the last three years.


You can never count out the defending champ, and there may still be some magic left for triple-tartan winner Stewart Cink. The putter will have to get hot again for Cink to stay afloat among the young guns, but he’s clearly found something with his son Reagan on the bag. He’ll need a little more than the two miracle shots he’s hit over the past few weeks, but nobody will dismiss his chances if he hangs around.


And maybe this is the year for Tyrrell Hatton, who sits at 4-under looking for his first PGA Tour win since the 2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational. A consistently strong putter who disappointed at Augusta — and had some harsh words for the hallowed course — Hatton should have the fuel to build on a solid opening round as he looks to claim that elusive tartan jacket.


It’s almost anyone’s tournament at this point, and we could be in for a wet and wild weekend with rain in the forecast on both Saturday and Sunday. Friday’s round is all about positioning, and we could see some big changes in the names on the top at the end of the day.


If Cameron Young falls back to Earth after his red-hot start on Thursday, look for Niemann, Conners, and Cantlay to have staying power as we head towards the weekend. The group that conquered Harbour Town on Thursday afternoon should find more favorable conditions Friday morning, and we could see Niemann, Varner, Straka, and Lowry get the chance to strike while the iron is hot and set the pace for the rest of the field.


We’re finally living our dream of a full-fledged Heritage, and the leaderboard couldn’t look much better.


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