By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 20/06/20 1:44am
Webb Simpson claimed the outright lead and Rory McIlroy battled hard to make the cut, but day two of the RBC Heritage was dominated by the news that Nick Watney tested positive for coronavirus.
Simpson birded his last two holes to complete back-to-back rounds of 65 and hit the front on 12 under, one ahead of Bryson DeChambeau and Corey Conners, while 33 players were still on the course when play was suspended due to lightning storms in the area.
McIlroy was safely in the clubhouse and safely through to the weekend on five under after he recovered from his opening 72 with a classy 65 with six birdies and no blemishes, but attention late in the day turned to Watney after his withdrawal on Friday morning was followed by rumours of a player giving a positive test for Covid-19.
A PGA Tour statement was then issued when Watney’s playing partners, Luke List and Vaughn Taylor, were halfway through their second rounds, which confirmed the American had withdrawn and will now enter the self-isolation protocol for a minimum of 10 days.
While events off the course overshadowed the Tour’s second tournament back following 91 days of inactivity, Simpson went quietly and efficiently about his business and he looks certain to enjoy the halfway lead on his own unless Matt Fitzpatrick can birdie the three holes of his round remaining when play resumes on Saturday morning.
Simpson’s advantage could have been more commanding had he not carded three bogeys against his nine birdies around a tight and testing Harbour Town Golf Links layout that suits his “fairways and greens” strategy as the former US Open champion chases his second victory of the year after winning in Phoenix in February.
But the DeChambeau proved that raw power can tame one of the more old-fashioned courses on the Tour schedule as he forged his way into contention for the second week running, recovering from a bogey at his opening hole with eight birdies, including six in eight holes on the front nine.
DeChambeau, whose weight gain of around three stone in nine months has helped him propel his ball extraordinary distances over the first six rounds of post-shutdown tournament golf, signed for a 64 which earned him a share of second with Conners, the Canadian returning an eight-birdie 63 that was free of any blemishes.
Matt Fitzpatrick was nine under with three holes to complete when play was suspended due to lightning storms in the area and, after a delay of two hours, he returned to birdie 16 and 18 either side of a bogey at the penultimate hole as he closed on 10 under.
Former world No 1 Brooks Koepka, who encountered an ailing Watney in the car park on his arrival at the course in the morning, was just two off the lead when he rolled in his seventh birdie putt of the day at the 16th, although he bogeyed the last to slip to nine under alongside overnight joint-leader Ian Poulter.
The veteran Englishman was two over for the round and aware that a couple more mistakes would likely result in missing the cut, but he rallied late and birdied four of his last five holes to complete a commendable 69.
Ernie Els proved he can still compete on Tour despite turning 50 last October, the four-time major champion firing a second 67 to move to eight under alongside the likes of US Ryder Cup team-mates Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau, while Sergio Garcia and Bay Hill champion Tyrrell Hatton are a shot further adrift.
McIlroy began his second round knowing he needed something in the mid-60s to avoid missing the cut for the first time since The Open last July, and he duly obliged thanks to a significant improvement in the accuracy of his tee shots.
The world No 1 cruised to the turn in 33 and holed back-to-back 10 foot putts for further birdies at 11 and 12 before adding another at the 15th, and he made clutch par saves on each of the last three holes to keep a bogey off his card and ensure another 36 holes of competitive golf this weekend.
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