Notes: All eyes on Woods in Thursday's opener
AKRON, Ohio – Assisted by a heavy, sultry air that always seems to help home run shots and field-goal attempts, you knew something notable was going on at Firestone Country Club at about 1:35 p.m. The roar was enormous.
Jason Day stuffing his 165-yard approach to 18 feet and burying his seventh birdie of the opening round of the Bridgestone Invitational?
Nah, it was more newsworthy than that. It was Tiger Woods putting on his golf glove at the first tee. Or did he remove his hat and wipe his brow? It was so hard to tell, because everytime Woods did so much as draw a breath, notebooks opened, pens scribbled, and people stood on tippy-toes.
Yes, it was back, for perhaps the most intense time since the 2010 Masters. The obsession for all things Tiger Woods, that is. Forget the other 75 players in this World Golf Championship field, on this day, only one golfer mattered, a lesson Day learned the hard way.
Forget that he matched his best-ever PGA Tour score, a 63, Day was brushed aside as if he had shot 93. Normally, the early leader would have signed his card and been whisked off to the media center, but no reason for that treatment on this day; the media center was empty, what with Woods about to play his first competitive golf since May 12.
Heck, had Day shot 59, there’s no guarantee he’d have warranted mention anywhere above the seventh paragraph. It’s not right, but it’s not wrong, either. It just speaks to our fascination with celebrity and while Day, at 23, may be too young to appreciate the nuances of all this, his older colleagues can handle it.
“I think he deserves (the attention),” Nick Watney said. “I think he’s earned it. He made the PGA Tour what it is.”
Watney is one who could appreciate the lack of attention paid Day, because even a bogey on the closing hole couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. With an inward 31, Watney shot 65 – and hardly got noticed by a throng of writers who were waiting for Woods in the very next group.
Again, Watney wasn’t offended.
“I think the people who came out today to see him will remember it,” Watney said.
On a day when thick humidity helped keep Firestone CC soft and velcro-like, a whopping 263 birdies (not to mention four eagles) were made, yet the three that Woods made caused the most commotion. Yes, even his competitors conceded they were interested. Like Steve Stricker, who was paired with Watney, but snuck a look to his left while he walked up the 10th fairway, hoping to see Woods play the ninth.
Was his interest fueled by his friendship or his curiosity?
“Both,” Stricker said. “But I was interested in how he was playing.”
Told that Woods’ round of 2 under 68 featured spotty play, but perhaps not nearly as much rust as had been expected, Stricker nodded. He said he hasn’t gotten a chance to talk to Woods here at the Bridgestone, but he’s encouraged to see that his friend got off to a decent start.
“I think all that stuff (the divorce, the scandal) is behind him and he can concentrate on the golf,” Stricker said. “It sounds like he’s healthy.”
Which means a healthy dose of “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing,” even at the expense of the golf storylines generated by others, some brilliant, others not so. A sampling:
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In a way, the first round of the Bridgestone Invitational felt like the last round of the Masters, what with flashy Aussies taking over.
At Augusta, Adam Scott and Day wound up tied for second behind Charl Schwartzel; Thursday, Scott saw Day’s morning 63 and raised him one, shooting 8 under 62. Had they played a best-ball, the Aussies would have shot 12-under 58.
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Scott, out in the final pairing off the first tee, two groups behind Woods, knows full well that he’s ensnared in the Woods-mania for having joined forces with caddie Steve Williams. Let’s just say the player-caddie divorce between Woods-Williams wasn’t amicable, but ever the diplomat, Scott is keeping his distance.
“Until it really has an effect on me and how I’m going to play . . . (Williams) is dealing with it the way he wants to deal with it. He’s a big boy. He can handle it.”
All Scott cares about right now is that he’s working his fourth tournament with Williams and likes the chemistry.
“Steve believes in my game,” Scott said, “that I can be one of the best players in the world. I think he thinks he can help me achieve that and I believe that, too.”
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OK, just how long is Firestone’s monster par-5 16th? Well, consider that Gary Woodland drove it 311 yards, sat in the middle of the fairway, yet had no chance at getting home in two.
After all, he had 346 yards still to go.
Makes you wonder what the mortals face on that hole, because Woodland is longer than long. The only thing is, Woodland was crooked with the all-important layup shot and when he pulled his 230-yard shot into left rough, he had a challenge. Sure, it was only 117 yards to the front hole location, but the rough is gnarly and even with Woodland’s strength it was no match.
He came up 15 yards short, splashed into the pond, and made a double bogey.
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Woodland’s mishap was one of five double-bogeys at the 16th. One of the others belonged to Jim Furyk, who can officially be classified a 2011 shock.
Making a double from just 99 yards out was bad enough; even worse, Furyk matched his worst-ever score at Firestone, 73. True, it’s not as much of a playground as it is for Woods, but Furyk since 1999 has played 41 rounds here and 26 of them have been sub-par and there have been six top 10 finishes in 10 tries. (He was also top 10 when the tournament was held at Sahalee in 2002.)
The reigning champion sits 78th in the current FedEx Cup standings and rounds of 3 over 73 at a favorite layout aren’t about to change that scenario.
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Teeth? Firestone CC flashed its dentures. The field average of 69.632 was the lowest since Round 1 of 2001 (69.128). Four players – Scott (62), Day (63), Thomas Bjorn (66), and Luke Donald (68) – all went bogey-free and more than half the field (39 of 76 players) broke par.
Yet before you start thinking that the Bob Hope Birdie Festival broke out, consider Darren Clarke. Just a few weeks ago he was hoisting the Claret Jug; yesterday he required a hole-out 184 yards at the par 4 eighth to help him break 80.
Looking like a guy in the third flite opposite Woods, Clarke bogeyed the first hole, fortunately turned in 1 over 36, but came home in 41 to share last place with Simon Dyson.
What’s that? Dyson shot 77, too. And he won the Irish Open last weekend.
The party seems to carry over with these Euros, eh?
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Then again, another head-shaker was Dustin Johnson.
Seemingly made for Firestone, he started birdie, birdie, then promptly fell flat. Starting at the third, Johnson bogeyed five of 12 holes and wound up shooting 73, his highest score in nine trips around here.
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Maybe all that time talking with psychologist Bob Rotella and putting guru Dave Stockton made an impression on Lee Westwood.
Coming off of a disappointing performance at the British Open, the world’s second-ranked player made five birdies, one-putted eight times, and shot 67.
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On second thought, it’s not all Tiger, all the time. Not with the Japanese media. It mattered very little that Woods shot 68; it meant everything to see Ryo Ishikawa fire a 67 that was punctuated with the most impressive par of the day.
Having pulled his second shot into the 18th hole so far left that his ball hit a hospitality tent and a cart path, Ishikawa was eventually given a drop behind a picket fence at a condo overlooking the 18th green. He wedged to 10 feet, made the putt, and raised his arms in triumph.