Tiger Woods showed no sign of slowing down as he followed his gruelling US PGA Championship victory on Sunday with a superb six under par 64 to lead after the first round of the WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio.
The remarkable World No.1, who claimed his third major title of 2000 by defeating Bob May in a play-off at Valhalla, enjoyed two days lazing in front of his TV set – then set about trying to retain his title.
Woods leads by a stroke from fellow American, Jim Furyk, but the European challenge shaped up well with three players – Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Phillip Price – all sharing third place just two shots off the pace after rounds of 66.
But the worrying news for the rest of the field came after Woods finished his round – and confessed he hadn’t performed particularly well. At one stage he was seven under par after 12 holes and staring a possible sub-60 round in the face, but he dropped two strokes over the closing three holes and said: “I didn’t drive the ball very well. I drove it terrible on the back nine.
“I was able to keep it on the property, which is good – and I broke 80, which is also good! No, seriously I just wanted to get off to a good solid start and I did that. I got some rest on Monday and Tuesday and played six holes yesterday so I got the feel of the course.”
Furyk birdied the 15th and 16th to move into second place on 65 while Clarke, Westwood and Price all indicated that they are ready to push Woods all the way this week.
Clarke’s 66 was his lowest round at Firestone and he admitted to a feeling of “here we go again” when he saw Woods climb to seven under. He said: “I’m getting used to seeing his name up there every week. I saw he was on six under and said to Billy (Foster), my caddie: ‘He’s off again’! We’re all going to have to play very well this week to beat him.”
Westwood, despite a last hole bogey, was insistent that 66 was the worst his score could have been based on how he struck the ball. However it was a putting lesson from Mark O’Meara which finally did the trick.
He explained: “Mark played with me last week and he was as horrified as I was with my putting. He gave me a few tips and they worked. He approached me on the practice range yesterday and said I needed to release my arms a bit more.”
Price, making his debut in the NEC Invitational after qualifying from the Volvo Order of Merit, came home in 32 with three birdies for a round of 66 which pleased him immensely. The Welshman admitted he had lost some of his drive and motivation during the season but said: “I am back on track. My psychologist, Alan Fine, flew here from his home in Salt Lake City and we had two good days on Tuesday and Wednesday. It helped enormously.”
José Maria Olazábal, twice a winner of the NEC Invitational before it came under the umbrella of the World Golf Championships and the course record holder with a 61, bogeyed the last for a round of 67 which showed great promise.
“My game is improving, but there is still room for improvement with my driving” he said. “It was a positive round, with only one blemish at the 18th, and I believe I can still shoot low on this course.”