Tiger Woods continued to defy golfing logic at Firestone Country Club by setting the new US PGA Tour record of 125 for the first two rounds of the WGC-NEC Invitational, while at the same time equalling José Maria Olazábal’s ten year old course record of 61.
The 24 year old World No.1, far from displaying fatigue from winning three majors in the last two months, seemed positively energised as he fired a wonderful nine under par round in the blazing sunshine to leave his rivals trailing in his slipstream, seven shots behind.
Woods drew eight strokes clear of Phil Mickelson, who finished second to him last year, with Justin Leonard in third and Phillip Price and Lee Westwood heading the European challenge in a share of fifth place on 135, five under par – and ten behind the leader.
Modest as ever, Woods took no great pride in shooting the best opening two rounds in US Tour history. He pointed out that his 125 had come on a par 70 course rather than a par 72 so his achievements did not amount to anything special.
Try telling that to his 36 opponents in an elite field, who were reduced to scrambling for a position to challenge the man who has come to dominate the sport over the last twelve months or so. His courage, conviction, energy and dedication simply defy belief.
“He’s phenomenal” exclaimed Colin Montgomerie, who fired a 69 for a level par total of 140. “I saw he was 11 under par after 24 holes and I could only that gap widening.”
Sure enough, it did. Woods reached the turn in 30 for the second day in a row and birdied five more on his homeward march, which contained the solitary bogey which conceivably cost him the opportunity to shoot under 60.
The huge crowds – chanting “59…59” certainly recognised the feat was on the cards, but Woods, as focussed as ever, confessed he didn’t hear a sound. He was in his own private world, oblivious to outside forces, and concentrating with every sinew to make the title his own by the halfway stage.
“I wasn’t thinking about 59. I don’t have a clue how many under par I was after 12 holes – eight was it? – I was doing my best to increase my lead. I did play well, hit a lot of good shots, some wonderful drives and some makeable birdie putts which dropped. I felt comfortable.”
Mickelson, runner-up by just one shot last year, will have his work cut out to get as close this time around while Leonard (67 for 133) and Jim Furyk (69 for 134) are among the chasing pack hoping that Woods stumbles over the weekend.
Westwood and Price both added 69s to their opening 66s. Westwood admitted he couldn’t buy a break and said: “I played great, even on the front nine when I shot three over par. I got unlucky a couple of times.
“I got no breaks. I must have walked under a ladder or ran over a cat on the front nine” he added ruefully.
Welshman Price played steadily and managed to reach six under par before spilling a shot at the ninth and 13th. However he recovered with a birdie on the 16th and sank an 18 footer for a par on the last to make his dinner taste better.
“I played lovely for 12 holes but it was scrappy stuff on the last six” he said. “I was pleased to make that one on the last. I can now regroup and start again tomorrow with confidence.”
Gary Orr, Andrew Coltart and Thomas Björn all finished the day on the same mark, 138, two under par. Orr was content with his 68 which helped him and his European colleagues into a tie for 11th place, albeit a long, long way behind Woods.
“I was pleased to make prgoress today” said Orr. I played terrible on the front nine and scrambled like crazy but played much better on the back nine.”
The best score by a European golfer came early in the day by Padraig Harrington, whose five under par 65 was bettered only by the tournament leader. First out, playing on his own – “a strange experience” – he was round in two hours 50 minutes with eight birdies on his card. On 141, he climbed from 37th and last into a tie for 23rd.