Furyk races to Firestone lead, Tiger seven back

DOUG FERGUSON
Last updated 13:52 03/08/2012
Jim Furyk of the United States watches his tee shot on the par three fifth hole during the first round of play at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament in Akron, Ohio.
Reuters
UP FRONT: Jim Furyk of the United States watches his tee shot on the par three fifth hole during the first round of play at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament in Akron, Ohio.

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Jim Furyk made a detour to Florida to sit on his back porch and hang out with his kids as he tried to figure out why decent golf was producing ordinary scores. The short break appeared to do him a world of good in the Bridgestone Invitational today (NZ time).

With seven birdies and a nine metre eagle putt, Furyk had a 7-under 63 for his best score ever at Firestone and a two-shot lead over Lee Slattery of England.

The conditions could not have been more ideal with sunshine, heat and very little wind, along with carpet for fairways and smooth greens. It showed in some of the tee shots on the South Course — 58 drives of at least 320 metres, and a 390-metre effort by Branden Grace of South Africa — and mostly in the scoring.

Luke Donald, the world's No 1 player, and Masters champion Bubba Watson were among those at 66. Thirty players in the 78-man field at this World Golf Championship managed to break par.

Tiger Woods was not among them. He was 3 under after back-to-back birdies to start the back nine, but had to lay up with his third shot on the par-5 16th after driving into the trees and ended his round with a three-putt bogey from 8m for a 70. It was his second-worst start at Firestone, a course where he has won seven times. The other was a 74 in 2010, his last week without a swing coach.

"I think I averaged about four putts per hole, so it was a great day on the greens," said Woods, who lost his touch on the greens but at least kept his sarcasm.

Since missing out on a chance to win the US Open, Furyk has tied for 34th in two tournaments and missed two cuts, including last week in Canada. For a guy who is 15th in the Ryder Cup standings — even a win this week would not make him eligible for the US team — this was no time to be stuck in neutral.

So when he had another weekend off after rounds of 70-70 at the Canadian Open, he flew home for three days.

"I think more than anything I needed a little time to clear my head," Furyk said. "It wasn't anything that was going wrong, (but) why I wasn't playing better. I just felt like I needed to come in here and quit concentrating on trying to be so mechanically sound and just go play some golf and try to score and get the ball in the hole a little bit. It worked today. I did a lot better job of scoring.

"It's been a while since I made seven birdies and an eagle in a round," he said. "So it was a lot of fun."

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The average score was 70.33, which is on the low side for Firestone.

Defending champion Adam Scott, in his first tournament since making four straight bogeys to lose the British Open, had a four-putt from just inside 3m early in his round and shot 71. So did Phil Mickelson, while British Open champion Ernie Els had a 73.

This is a course where players can smash it off the tee, and most of them did. Watson said he hit driver on all but three of the long holes. When he was asked how many fairways he missed, Watson replied, "I don't know. I shot 4 under. That's all I know."

That ultimately was all that mattered.

Grace, who along with Woods is the only player with three wins this year, crushed a tee shot into the speed slot on the 600m 16th hole that left him only 202ms to the hole. One problem.

"It was a reasonable opportunity," Grace said. "But I was right between clubs. I could either thump a 3-iron or hit my rescue, and going just over the back of that green and chipping back is not the best."

So he laid up with a gap wedge, and then hit another gap wedge just over the back of the green, the very place where he feared his hybrid might go. He settled for par.

"Tiger and I were talking about it going up the 17th," Grace said. "It's a pity you hit a great drive and go gap wedge, gap wedge. It doesn't make sense."

Grace had one of three drives that travelled over 365m. Firestone always allows for extra distance when it's dry and the fairways are running fast. But it reached the point that when Furyk was told he hit seven drives over 300 yards, he said, "That's it?"

"I never crack the top 150 in driving distance on tour," Furyk said. "If all of a sudden, out of all the guys that played today, I was 30th in today's field, I would say I was a lot longer than normal. But if I end up being — was there 80 guys in the field, 78? If I was 63rd today, I really wouldn't worry about it."

He was 59th.

"It was hot," Furyk said. "The ball is going pretty far and the ground is quite firm. Statistically, it'll probably look pretty good."

What looked superb was the 63 on his card, on a course he loves and has twice come within a shot of either winning or getting into a playoff. Furyk is No. 15 in the Ryder Cup standings, and he has played on every team — Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup — since 1997.

Even if doesn't earn one of the eight spots after the PGA Championship next week, he would have three weeks to audition as a captain's pick. One of the knocks against Furyk is that he doesn't make a lot of birdies. His strength is staying in every hole and fighting for every shot, as he showed against Donald in the last Ryder Cup in Wales.

"Eventually in my career, I'm going to miss playing on those teams, and I'm hoping it's not this year," Furyk said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't on my mind. But I'm also wise enough to know that it's there in the back parts of my mind right now. And I know the only way to take care of business is to really focus on golf and the next shot and the next round, and forget about it and just try to play as well as I can and let those things work themselves out."

Woods, meanwhile, said he would head to the practice green to work on his pace.

He missed nine putts from around 5m or closer, including a couple of them inside 1.5m for par. The rest of his game was reasonable, and starting out seven shots behind is no cause for him to panic.

"I was 3-under par. I mean, that's not that bad," Woods said. "At the time I was three back of the lead and hadn't made a thing. I thought that was a good sign. Unfortunately, finished awful and here we are."

- AP

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