AKRON, Ohio – Hot, humid, devoid of wind, and conditions softer than the American economy, Firestone Country Club simply couldn’t defend itself against the best of the best in Round 2 of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
As a result, 29 of the 76 competitors broke par and while the overall field average was still 70.118, there were a half-dozen scores of 66 or better. Indeed, it appeared to be a day ripe for a course record and we nearly got it thanks to a blistering finish by Sergio Garcia.
The irrepressible Spaniard turned in a quiet 1-under 34, then blitzed the back with eight birdies, including seven in a row to finish.
The 10-under 61 ties those recorded by Tiger Woods (Rounds 2 in 2000 and again last year) and Jose Maria Olazabal (in 1990 when it was the World Series of Golf).
Though Garcia seized the lead at 11-under 129, he could not pull away because Justin Rose hung close with a 67 – 132, while Rory McIlroy finished birdie-birdie to shoot 64 – 133, tied with Marc Leishman (69).
Red numbers on a warm day. It was the story of the day, but there was more. Here are five things to know from Round 2 of this World Golf Championship:
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1. A ROSEY PICTURE: For good reason, McIlroy is all the rage, so far as names on the golf course, that is. But in all due respect to the Northern Irishman, ask yourself this: Had the pairings been reversed at the Open Championship and McIlroy been on the poor end, as were those names who went late then early, might we not be trumpeting Justin Rose as the game’s hottest attraction?
Very likely, yes.
Then again, even with the way the Open worked out – McIlroy winning, Rose never able to overcome the bad draw – it’s hard not to turn the spotlight on the birthday boy. Rose, who turned 34 Wednesday, simply is playing brilliant golf, the finest of his career.
He backed up an opening 65 with a one-bogey 67 to get halfway home at 8 under. File it under “ho, hum,” because in his last 10 stroke-play events, including two on the European Tour, Rose has two wins, three other top 10s and nine finishes inside the top 25.
“My momentum started about a month ago. Seem to be carrying it on nicely,” Rose said, though if we could offer an edit, his roll began more than three months ago, at Augusta National, to be exact.
He was 5 under and joint 14th that week and the good times have just rolled on and on. The Englishman came into Bridgestone a whopping 57 under for 38 stroke-play rounds since the Masters.
Not that he’s resting on his accomplishments, mind you. Instead, Rose is looking at the upcoming schedule – “There’s not a bad golf tournament now for about two months,” he said – and thinks the season’s final major, next week’s PGA, is coming at the perfect time.
To keep the great rhythm, Rose hit balls after Thursday’s round and following Friday’s work he putted for a while.
“There’s always something to work on,” he said, “but even more motivation to work on it when next week is a major championship.”
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2. QUIETLY, HE SETTLES IN: True, he might feel like Switzerland when compared to the behomoths like Garcia, Rose and McIlroy, but Marc Leishman is quite confident of his abilities.
“If I keep doing what I’ve been doing, there’s no reason why not,” the Aussie said, when asked if he thought he could win this WGC.
Certainly, with a bushel of birdies – 12, to be exact – and rounds of 64-69, the 30-year-old feels he belongs with the marquee names, even if he doesn’t have their resumes. “I feel like I’m playing well. It’s a tough course, (but) I guess the soft conditions are helping a little bit.”
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3. IN GOOD POSITION: Little history reminder. In 2011 the 36-hole lead here was 11 under and Keegan Bradley was 4 under. He finished 67-64, wiped out a seven-shot deficit and won with a dramatic par-save at the 18th hole.
This year, 11 under is the lead through 36 holes and Bradley is 5 under. An omen?
Bradley smiled, but not because he was thinking of repeating history. No, he was more satisifed with a game that he thinks is clicking at the right time. “I’m playing well, I feel so good right now,” Bradley said after backing up a 68 with 67 to get into a share of seventh at 135.
The difference between 2012 and this year, however, is that scoring conditions are likely to remain optimum for players and it’s highly unlikely that 13 will win, as it did two years ago.
Still, the greater point is that Bradley is riding a wave of positives as he chases a possible WGC title, another PGA, and his ultimate goal to the year, a Ryder Cup spot.
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4. NOTHING RIGHT FOR LEFTY: Bad enough that Phil Mickelson’s lackluster season continued with a 73, but coming opposite a playing competitor’s 61 made it feel like 93. Trying to jump-start his season on the eve of the PGA Championship and the FedEx Cup playoffs, not to mention the Ryder Cup, Mickelson has not succeeded.
At 4-over 144 he is joint 58th and a whopping 15 off Garcia’s lead.
Then again, it’s not the biggest shock for two reasons. One, Mickelson has simply been unable to find a rhythm this year as he still searches for his first top 10 on the PGA Tour. And two, while he was top 10 in each of his first three starts to Firestone for the Bridgestone Invitational, in his last 11 tries he’s got one top 10 and eight finishes outside the top 30.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: With the threat of unsettled weather Saturday afternoon, Round 3 tee times have been pushed up. Players will go off in threesomes between 7-9 a.m. . . . . . Japan’s Yoshitaka Takeya has struggled for two days (75-74), but not on the par 3s where he is 2 under with three birdies . . . . . Martin Kaymer bounced back from an opening 77 with a 68, just his second sub-70 in 12 rounds since winning the U.S. Open . . . . . Sitting outside the cutoff to make the FedEx Cup playoffs, Louis Oosthuizen (126th) isn’t getting the big push he needs. He followed a 75 with a 73 and is tied for 70th, ahead of just five players.