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Woods starts well, but another big name is gaining steam at Firestone

Tiger Woods, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational
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Tiger Woods opened with a strong four-under 66.

AKRON, Ohio -- It's only Thursday afternoon here at Firestone Country Club, so maybe it's too early to hand this WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to the probable, almost inevitable winner: Kiradech Aphibarnrat. (Obvious pronunciation… duh.)

Okay, sure, there are others ahead of Aphibarnrat, including Tiger Woods, but Aphibarnrat, playing in the Bridgestone due to his Maybank Malaysian Open win earlier this year, fired a first-round, one-under-par 69. In an elite field with 49 of the top 50 in the world, the 24-year-old Thai no one's ever heard of is tied for 14th place.

Elsewhere Thursday at Firestone, Webb Simpson posted 64 to hold the lead midway through the first round after piling up eight birdies in impressive fashion. Even more impressive, this is Simpson's debut at The Stone, as Firestone is called by almost no one but probably should be. In 2011, Simpson was ranked 51st in the world and wasn't invited to this festive affair. In 2012, he missed the Bridgestone because his daughter, Willow, was born. So Simpson shot 64 on his first competitive tour of The Stone. Not bad.

"It was just one of those days where I saw the lines well and my speed was really good," he said. "The putts were just going in the middle. It was fun to be out there. All in all, a great day."

Sweden's Henrik Stenson shot 65 in the morning -- four strokes ahead of Aphibarnrat -- with an eagle, three birdies and no bogeys. The daffy Swede, who made news a few years ago by playing a shot in his underpants, changed shoes at the turn because the pair he had on, which he'd worn for nine holes Tuesday and another nine Wednesday, started gnawing on his right heel.

"I felt I had a blister coming along, so I asked if somebody could bring my old pair of shoes out," Stenson said. "It might not match the outfit perfectly but after I made the switch, it felt like I had socks on compared to the new pair. It was good." Alert: Turn away from the next sentence if you're squeamish. "The blister popped on 17, but we'll be all right."

The foursome at 66 featured defending champion Keegan Bradley, Ryan Moore, Chris Wood and Woods. Rory McIlroy shot 70, and Phil Mickelson came in with a 72.

Aphibarnrat is ranked 90th in the world, but would he wear new shoes that aren't completely broken in? No. It is a sign of weakness. A legend in his native Bangkok, he is 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 229 pounds. His first win, at age 19, came at the 2009 Mercedes-Benz Tour's Singha Pattaya Open, which he won by a dominating 11 strokes -- a victory worth about $50,000 in American dollars. Aphibarnrat's first Asian Tour title came at the 2011 SAIL Open, signaling the start of the Kiradech Aphibarnrat Era. (Nicknames: Barn Rat? No. Thai Breaker? Maybe.) He clipped Edoardo Molinari by a stroke at the Malaysian Open in March, salting away his first official Euro tour win when the tournament was shortened to 54 holes due to bad weather.

Woods seemed not to notice Aphibarnrat in his rearview mirror, although it may have been a psychological ploy.

"I felt pretty good," said Woods, who is going for win No. 8 at Firestone South. "I hit a lot of good shots. I feel very good about what I'm doing with my whole swing."

Woods made a par on the ninth hole despite hooking his drive into the 10th fairway, and had he played Aphibarnrat in match play, starting at the first hole, Woods would've throttled the little-known Thai 6 and 4. But that's of course conjecture, since it doesn't factor in playing in the other man's presence. As for the 14-time major winner Woods's wild hook on nine, he described the shot as "a high, hammered snap-hook. It was nice. I hit all of it. It was beautiful -- right in the middle of the fairway." Uh, that'd be the 10th fairway. "Hey, I still count it as a fairway hit," Woods joked.

Mr. Firestone made two other notable missteps: At the 11th, he drove it in the right rough, couldn't reach the green and didn't get up and down, making bogey. He took another bogey at the par-5 16th, where he drove into a fairway bunker, pitched out, laid up short of the pond, pitched on and two-putted for a 6. He more than offset those mistakes with six birdies.

As Woods knows better than anyone, it's always good strategy to get out in front of Aphibarnrat if you can. The Thai Breaker will be paired with Harris English again in Friday's second round, when we'll see whether anyone in this field can keep up with a big name like Aphibarnrat. Or spell it.
 

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