Europe’s golfers put the frustration of Atlanta firmly behind them in Akron by making an outstanding start to the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club.
Thomas Björn, Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie finished an excellent first day just one stroke behind leaders Jim Furyk and another European Tour Member, Greg Norman, while young Englishman Ian Poulter was only a further stroke off the pace.
The trio of Europeans all opened with four under par 66s – the same score as an ailing Tiger Woods, who is bidding to win the title for a third successive year but had felt under the weather for several days with a stomach complaint.
Poulter carded a promising 67 on his first visit to Firestone while the Irish World Cup winning side from 1997, Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington, both shot 68s.
Birdies were plentiful after Firestone took a soaking overnight, with Montgomerie claiming seven of them in his 66, Björn collecting six and Clarke making four birdies and a glorious eagle as the European challenge gathered momentum.
Montgomerie majored on the need to make a fast start in a field that is small numerically but contains most of the world’s greatest players. He said: “I had a disappointing week in the US PGA so it’s nice to come here and put that to rest and get a good start and look forward now to the next three days.
“It’s important to get off to a good start. I know we don’t have 150 guys here but we do have the top 39 and if you are up in the leading groups in this field you’ve done okay.”
He added: “After the Majors the Ryder Cup is the fifth goal, then you look forward to the World Golf Championships. This is the second one of the year and I’m in contention which is great.”
Clarke, who missed the halfway cut in the US PGA Championship, spent the weekend with friends in Philadelphia and moved on to Akron to click into gear immediately. At the second hole he smacked a driver and five wood to four feet for an eagle three and followed it with a drive and nine iron to six inches for a birdie.
Three under after three, the Irishman was off and running and he joked: “That was a pretty nice start – about six shots better than usual at this place!”
Björn was the first of the trio to enter the clubhouse with a score of 66 under his belt and he commented: “It’s definitely a good start. It’s what I was looking for. I didn’t play very well last week at the PGA and I struggled a bit with my swing. I hit a few wayward shots today but got away with it.
“I just kept my focus very well and if I can do that all week it will be all right. I still need to do a bit of work on my driving. However there are a lot of good things in there as well.”
Poulter, who made his American debut in the US PGA Championship last week and missed the cut, hinted that he is a fast learner of US conditions. After an opening three over par 73 at Atlantic Athletic Club, the man from Leighton Buzzard opened with a three under par 67.
“I’m very pleased with that” he said. “I played absolutely awesome today. I made plenty of chances. I knew when not to go for the pins and tried to give myself the easy putts. Overall it was a nice round.”
Poulter had spent some time in the locker room before teeing off watching events from the Gleneagles Scottish PGA Championship in Scotland, noting the performances of Andrew Coltart and Andrew Oldcorn, who are ranked 13th and 14th behind his 12th placing in the current Ryder Cup points list.
“I saw what was happening so I know how things stand” he added. “Four decent rounds this week and I will be happy – four like the way I played today and I would have a real chance.”
McGinley described his 68 as a “really good, solid round of golf” and, as one of the early starters in dull, drizzly conditions, predicted that four under par would lead. He was almost right. Furyk birdied two of the last three holes for his 65 while Norman, the only player to get to six under par, missed an opportunity to lead outright when he bogeyed the last.
Bernhard Langer finished with a one under par 69, while Lee Westwood birdied three of the last six holes for a level par 70, the same mark as Phillip Price of Wales and Spain’s Miguel Angel Jiménez. Pierre Fulke shot 73 and fellow Swede Niclas Fasth a 74.
Among the other European Tour Members in the field, Ernie Els had a 67, Vijay Singh a 70, Michael Campbell a 71 and Retief Goosen a 72.