There were some bumps along the way and it wasn't the lowest number he's ever posted, but Tiger Woods opened the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a crisp and impressive 4-under round of 66. He's currently tied for third and three shots back of early pacesetter Webb Simpson. Woods moved briskly through Firestone's South Course, coming into the clubhouse in under four hours. The no-cut limited field with twosomes certainly helps, but Tiger's round was clean from the start and he's in fine position for an eighth win here.
Tiger's had a career-long battle with driver misses, a problem off the tee that's been particularly acute in recent years. He refused to hit driver at the British Open, which didn't exactly demand use of that club even though there were still chances for him to get aggressive with the big stick while chasing the lead. He also didn't hit his driver much during the Players Championship win, using TPC Sawgrass as a test ground for the shorter U.S. Open setup at Merion, where he also avoided the 1-wood. At Oak Hill next week for the PGA Championship, he'll have to hit driver and keep it between the trees on one of America's historic parklands courses. Firestone, which is not set up in the same demanding way, is a comparable layout to Oak Hill, measuring around 7,400 yards with tree-lined fairways.
In Thursday's opening round, Tiger hit the driver early and often, a big change in his approach but one that worked well. Woods hit five of his first seven fairways, according to Golf Channel's Tiger Tracker, who enthusiastically characterized the loop thusly:
"Stripe show" is one of those nerdy phrases Tiger loves to use, but he got a little loose with the driver on his finishing hole, No. 9 at the South Course. Woods sent his drive off the map, his left miss creeping back for a late appearance. The miss was so bad, however, that Tiger had a shot up and over the trees and saved par.
As is the case with Torrey Pines, Doral, or Bay Hill, this venue in Akron has become another home for Woods. He's owned it with seven career wins from 1999 to 2009, a huge part of his record 17 career WGC victories (Geoff Ogilvy is next closest with ... three career WGC titles). But 2009 is a line of demarcation here for Woods, who's had two of the lower moments in his career here recently.
On Thursday, however, Tiger was completely comfortable will all facets of the game clicking. The driver was steady and his irons were pure, sticking multiple approach shots to five feet or less. A sloppy chip shot on his second hole and several burned edges on birdie putts prevented a super-low round, but a day full of "stripes" and tap-in pars is exactly what Woods needed after that shaky Sunday at Muirfield.
Tiger's game was in such good form that he managed to post the 4-under round even after playing Firestone's two par-5s in 1-over. Woods' most common path to victory has always been dominating the par-5s, and the South Course has two birdie holes at No. 2 and No. 16 (a mammoth 650-yarder that's downhill). Tiger three-putted at No. 2 for a disappointing par, and found a fairway bunker at the 16th which resulted in a bogey.
The bogey at No. 16 would be his last of the day, as he played his final 11 holes in 4-under to finish up. After the birdie misses with the putter on his first nine, Tiger got it rolling coming into the house with moderate-length birdie putts at Nos. 4 and 8 to put himself in prime position for a four-day stay on the first page of the leaderboard. Tiger needs some encouraging rounds on a comparable course to Oak Hill, and the round on Thursday could be the start of his fifth 2013 victory.