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Woods up to old tricks at familiar stomping ground

Tiger Woods
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AKRON, Ohio – Forget about Inbee Park. Tiger Woods is the one going after a “slam” this week.

Granted, it’s not the slam he most covets. And sure, the term Tiger Slam already has a different connotation. But Woods is trying to complete a quartet of trophies that have had his name etched into them more often than not over the years.

Three of the four tournaments he’s won this season – at the Farmers Insurance Open, WGC-Cadillac Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational – have accounted for 22 of his 78 career PGA Tour titles. Now he’s trying to claim the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational for an eighth time. If it happens, that would mean those four tournaments will have comprised 38 percent of his lifetime total.

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Woods is beyond being a horse for these courses. He’s officially a thoroughbred.

And he’s already off to a strong start this week, producing a ball-striking clinic in an opening-round 4-under 66 here at Firestone Country Club that included a personal-best 16 of 18 greens in regulation on this course, including an inward nine where he didn’t miss a single one.

“I've played terrible coming in here and I've played really well coming in. And for some reason this golf course, I just see it. It's just one of those venues,” he explained. “Luckily over the years I've taken advantage of it. I have played well and I've scored well, and I've won my share of tournaments here.”

Woods’ opening round can best be summarized thusly: When he hit it close, he would make birdie and when he didn’t, he wouldn’t. That may not qualify as expertise analysis, but there were few surprises on this day. No dramatic 50-footers that found the bottom of the cup to raucous applause. No 3-foot gimmes that inexplicably burned the edge.

On the heels of a third consecutive major championship two weeks ago where he criticized himself for failing to adjust to green speeds, Woods continued to have ’em figured out here. He carded six birdies, though none from farther than 8 feet.

His play recalls an old Ben Hogan quote: “If you want to improve your putting, hit the ball closer to the hole.”

On this day, every time he hit an approach shot close, he made the putt. And while many of his 20- and 25-foot birdie attempts slid agonizingly past the hole, none of them dropped in.

“I feel very good about what I'm doing with basically my whole swing,” said Woods, who also hit 10 of 14 fairways, including five of eight when using his driver. “I hit a lot of good shots. I had a really good feel for the distance today.”

Of course, as is often the case with Tiger, even a low round comes shrouded in questions. Why couldn’t he do this on the weekend at Muirfield two weeks ago? Will he be able to do this next week at Oak Hill? We’ve seen this success on courses like Firestone over and over, but it’s been more than five years since he’s put together a winning weekend at a major.

There’s little doubt Woods would like to bottle his Thursday performance and carry it with him to Rochester, N.Y., for next week’s PGA Championship. In fact, in a cruel bit of irony, his play in the opening round was the exact type of play that wins majors. He largely stayed out of trouble and took advantage of birdie opportunities when they were available rather than trying to force the issue.

It is a blueprint that wins majors, but as he knows all too well, it also wins WGC-Bridgestone Invitationals, not to mention Farmers Insurance Opens, WGC-Cadillac Championships and Arnold Palmer Invitationals, too.

“It’s hard to explain, but I just feel comfortable seeing the shots here,” he said. “Still have to execute, obviously, and over the course of my career here, I've done all right at doing that.”

A continent away, on a course where Woods has claimed two major titles, Park is trying to win a fourth in a row as the world debates whether it would be a true Grand Slam or not.

Meanwhile, Woods may be in the process of clinching a “slam” of his own, seeking a fourth in a row in a foursome of tournaments where he always seems to dominate.