AKRON, Ohio – Seventy-three players are heading to the final two rounds of the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational this weekend. It appears 72 of them are playing for second place.
Tiger Woods on Friday delivered the kind of round the old Tiger Woods routinely did — especially here at Firestone Country Club — as Woods tied his own course record of 61, moving to 13-under on the tournament.
He’s seven shots clear of his nearest competitors in the event he’s already won seven times – but none since 2009.
Woods shot 61 in this tournament in 2000, and by matching that Friday he matched his personal professional record for the fourth time. When he started Friday’s back nine with four straight birdies it appeared as if he’d become the sixth player in PGA Tour history to shoot 59, but he didn’t make another birdie.
Just because he’s Tiger Woods, he rolled in a 26-footer for par on the 18th hole to preserve a bogey-free round.
“Sixty-one is pretty good,” Woods said when asked if there was any disappointment in coming so close but not breaking the course or his personal record. “I’m not bummed.”
With seven wins in 14 prior WGC-Bridgestone starts, Woods clearly loves this course. He’s dominated World Golf Championship events in general, winning 17 in 41 starts, and assuming he holds on this weekend the spotlight will really shine on next week’s PGA Championship in Rochester, N.Y., as Woods tries to win his first major since 2008.
As Woods reminded the golf world on Friday, no matter how star-studded the field, there’s only one Tiger Woods. The next-best score in Friday’s second round was 66, and Woods’ lead matches his largest after 36 holes.
“To post the number I posted, it felt good,” Woods said matter of factly. “Most of the day I was just playing well, trying to put the ball in the right spots and give myself birdie looks. I was putting so well I knew if I could give myself looks, I’d make my share.”
The competition will have to hope Woods slips back to Earth in Saturday’s third round. The problem for those chasing — defending champion Keegan Bradley and Chris Wood are at 6-under — is that Woods is not only accustomed to dominating at Firestone but has been especially good this week on the front nine.
Woods started Thursday’s opening round on No. 10, made the turn at even par and posted four birdies on Firestone South’s front nine to move to four under and into third place.
He began on No. 1 Friday and started birdie, eagle, birdie, almost immediately passing Bradley, who played Friday morning, and then distancing himself from the field as he continued to fire at pins and make putts throughout the afternoon.
An already large crowd following Woods grew larger as his momentum built Friday afternoon, and though Woods was pretty low-key until rolling in the long putt on No. 18, the gallery was not. The fans knew they were witnessing something special.
“You could hear it,” said Woods, whose score of 30 on the front nine matched the best of his career. “They were into it. It was nice. It’s fun when people are into it like that.”
Twice earlier this week, Woods said for some reason he’s almost always been able to take charge at Firestone in different fashions — while building on prior momentum, while bouncing back from a rough stretch, chasing the field after an average start and dominating like he is after Friday’s round.
A day after hitting 16 of 18 greens in regulation, he went through Friday’s round with just 22 total putts.
Woods said he just sees things well at Firestone, and the proof is in his last 27 holes. They weren’t all perfect — he missed some fairways on Friday and missed a 7-foot putt on No. 17 that essentially ended his chances of breaking 60 — but Woods hit a variety of breathtaking shots. Twice on the front nine he stuck approach shots within three feet; his eagle putt on No. 2 measured 20 feet.
Even when he hit a wild drive on No. 13, the ball hit some trees and bounced back into the fairway. It was just his day.
“Being 9-under is nothing that was uncomfortable or unusual,” Woods said. “I had a couple opportunities (to make it more).”
The weekend brings a couple more. After what he did Friday, just about anything seems possible again.