Akron, August 19:
Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson again got their names on the leaderboard, just not in the same order as the PGA Championship. Conditions were so demanding on Thursday at the NEC Invitational that only a dozen players broke par, the lowest number since it became a World Golf Championship in 1999. Firestone played nearly two strokes over par for the highest first-round scoring average in six years. No wonder Davis Love III referred to this as a â€˜mini major.â€™ Love shot a 3-under 67 that left him one shot behind Woods, Singh and Henrik Stenson of Sweden. The day belonged to Woods and Singh, Nos 1 and 2 in the world. Woods twice escaped trouble from the trees but never came close to making bogey. He made a 15-foot birdie on his final hole for his 66. He has never finished lower than fifth in seven appearances at Firestone.
Singh had a chance to take the outright lead until missing a 6-foot birdie putt on his 17th hole. He had to scramble from the rough to save par on the ninth hole for a share of the lead. Stenson, playing in his first World Golf Championship event, looked as though he might steal the spotlight when he got to 6-under with a 60-foot birdie on the par-3 fifth hole. But he missed the next two greens and dropped shots to fall into a share of the lead. Woods and Singh were the only players to finish in the top 10 at all four majors this year, with Woods winning the Masters and British Open. The course is tough. More money is at stake this week with a $7.5 million purse. Still, itâ€™s only a 72-man field with an odd collection of players from tours around the world. And there is no cut. Woods only sees dollar signs and trophies when he gets to Firestone. He won three straight years starting in 1999, and always seems to be in contention on this old-style course.
Thursday was no exception. His 7-iron hit the flag on No 12 hole and stopped 12 feet away for birdie, and he added two more birdies in the 15-foot range along with a short chip for a tap-in birdie on the par-5 second hole. He also got out of the trees on the sixth and ninth holes, both times finding a gap in the branches. His ball was on a shallow root on the ninth, his finishing hole. Instead of hitting a sand wedge that requires the club to dig into the ground,
the top player of the world tried to pick the ball clean with a wedge, and it stopped 15 feet right of the cup.