AKRON, Ohio – Bubba Watson, playing his first competitive round at venerable Firestone Country Club, shot a 6-under 64 for a two-stroke lead after Thursday’s opening round of the Bridgestone Invitational.
In marked contrast, Tiger Woods, who’s won seven times at Firestone and considers the Bridgestone almost an annuity, struggled all day and shot a 74, his worst round ever on the course and in the tournament.
“Just because I like the course doesn’t mean I’m going to play well on it,” said Woods, ahead of only eight others in the 81-player field. “You still have to execute.”
Watson sure did. He needed just 22 putts to shoot his lowest first-round score of the year. He arrived at the course on Sunday and got to know the layout before putting up seven birdies and a bogey.
“I knew it was going to be tough, but today I just putted really well, hit good iron shots and made it look a little bit easy,” he said.
It was the first time that Watson, who won the Travelers Championship in June for his first PGA Tour victory, has led a tournament after the opening round.
He rolled in a 35-footer from the apron in front of the 18th hole to cap his round.
“I’m just freewheeling it, just having fun,” he said.
Watson was coming off a couple of weeks partly spent with family members at a lake house in North Carolina. It’s been an emotional summer for the clan, with Watson’s father battling throat cancer. Watson broke down on the 18th green at the Travelers after winning when he thought of his father.
“My dad is a Vietnam vet, Special Forces Green Beret, but he’s a teddy bear now as he gets older,” Watson said. “He’s changed a lot, and as a whole family we’ve changed a lot.”
Phil Mickelson, Kenny Perry, Adam Scott and Graeme McDowell were all at 66, with Chad Campbell, Sean O’Hair, Jeff Overton, Bo Van Pelt and Retief Goosen at 67.
Mickelson was paired with rising star Rory McIlroy and the two ambled around the course as if it were a Tuesday morning practice round. McIlroy shot a solid 68 and Mickelson, after playing his first 10 holes in 1 over, birdied five of the last eight.
On his 15th hole, he missed the green right and was faced with a difficult flop shot. When he saw the lie, he was just hoping to make par.
“Not only did I get it up and down, but I made a nice birdie and was able to get two more coming in,” he said.
Perry is an old hand at Firestone, where he’s only broken the top 10 once in the last seven years. He used a unique approach to put his name near the top of the leaderboard.
“I don’t really have a lot of success here,” he said. “The golf course has usually beat me up pretty good. I took a little bit different strategy. My oldest daughter told me she was pregnant on Sunday. I’m going to be a granddad, so I stayed home. I didn’t fly in here until late Wednesday and I just teed it up today.”
Scott forged a bogey-free 66, thanks in part to some stellar scrambling and a new crosshanded grip while putting.
“I was struggling the other way, and I think technically it’s a good stroke for me,” he said.
McDowell, who captured the U.S. Open last month at Pebble Beach, closed out with a flourish, birdieing the final four holes.
“It’s probably the best golf I’ve played since Pebble,” said the native of Northern Ireland, who tied for 23rd at the British Open three weeks ago. “I’ve been a bit under the radar this week.”
The field in the no-cut event includes the top 50 players in the world. Everyone was shocked at what happened to the guy who’s No. 1.
Woods, coming off a two-week break since tying with McDowell for 23rd at St. Andrews, professed himself to be ready to defend his Bridgestone title on Wednesday. But then he went out and bogeyed the first two holes and never really got going. It got so bad that when he finally rolled in his second birdie of the day on a 7-footer at the 17th hole, he bowed and tipped his cap in two directions to cheers from the gallery.
Moments later, as he was walking between the 18th green and the scoring trailer, a young man said loudly to him, “You’re washed up, Tiger. Give it up!”
Woods never acknowledged the comment, kept walking, his head down, all the way in to sign his scorecard.