Woods struggles, Watson thrives and more early lessons from Firestone

Woods struggles, Watson thrives and more early lessons from Firestone

Despite his struggles this season — and on Thursday — Tiger Woods is still No. 1 in the world ranking.
Fred Vuich/Si

AKRON, Ohio — There is a feeling, maybe it’s actually more of a hope, that next week’s PGA Championship will define an otherwise muddled, mixed up, what-the-hell kind of a golf year.

It has been a year with no Tiger Woods. At least, not with him in any meaningful role other than in a fallen-idol, distraction kind of way. Phil Mickelson made a mark at the Masters with a memorable finish, but that seems like a long time ago and now stands like a bookend looking for its lost partner. Without looking it up, can you even name the U.S. and British Open winners? It was Graeme McDowell in a last-man-standing scenario at Pebble Beach and Louis Oosthuizen starring in a one-man-on-an-island script at St. Andrews.

There was a grooves controversy that died as fast as it arose. It’s an odd thing that 59s are sprouting up as often as perfect games and no-hitters this season in Major League Baseball. It’s a year in which Woods is poised to lose the No. 1 ranking, except no one has managed to step up and take it … yet.

How to make sense of 2010 in golf? It’s all up to the PGA, which makes this week’s Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club interesting for perhaps a sneak preview of what we can expect, although the tree-lined fairways and smallish greens of the South Course resembled the wide-open, huge greens of Whistling Straits the way Go Fish resembles Texas Hold ‘Em.

Here’s what we learned from Thursday’s opening round, the equivalent of a sneak preview:

Phil Mickelson lives. After a slow start, your Masters champion enjoyed a fast finish with birdies on three of the last four holes for a closing 30 and a 66. The man has been missing in action since somewhere in the middle of the back nine at Pebble Beach but he made what could be a timely reappearance.

Mickelson always has some new wrinkle he’s working on. This time, he shortened his driver shaft to 44 inches but made it 20 grams heavier. “I’m obviously not going to hit it as far but I thought the ball still came off pretty hot,” Mickelson said. “I wasn’t displeased with how far it was going. And it went a lot straighter. My misses were inside the tree line so I always had a shot into the green. That led to a lot more aggressive iron shots.”

He even displayed the Phlopping Phil magic of old, holing a lob shot from off the sixth green for an unlikely birdie. Rory McIlroy, who was paired with Mickelson, called it the best shot he’s seen all year. Mickelson wasn’t willing to go that far. “There were some shots at Augusta that I kind of remember a little more fondly than Thursday at Akron,” he said, grinning, “but it was a good one.”

The re-emergence of Mickelson, who was perceived as the tour’s potential savior early in the year when Woods was in exile, might not only make this a banner year for golf but also spark a U.S. Ryder Cup team that so far looks like a huge underdog against Europe next month. But, as Phil said, it’s only Thursday.

Tiger’s troubles. Woods endured a long day. He started bogey-bogey and things didn’t get much better after that. He found himself playing out of the trees quite a bit and again had trouble with the putter, missing most of his putts left. When he finally made a birdie putt of modest length at the 17th green, he tipped his cap and bowed in several directions as a mocking gesture to his struggles. He shot 74 and didn’t look PGA-ready, at least not on this day.

He hit only five fairways, 11 greens and had 32 putts, the worst of which were a couple from inside four feet that didn’t even catch a piece of the cup.

“I just didn’t play well,” Woods said. “I didn’t get off to a good start and those first two are easy holes. From then on, I didn’t hit any good putts and I hit only two good iron shots all day. That’s not enough. I did not execute the shots today.”

Hanging with Chad. You may remember Chad Campbell as an ex-Ryder Cupper, and a slow-talking and very polite Texan who plays brilliant golf from time to time. He shot 67 in the opening round and suddenly was slinging one-liners. Asked about European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie saying that he could fill two strong teams for the matches, Campbell quipped, “But you only play with one, don’t you?”

Then, when Campbell was asked how big his family is now, he replied, “Weight-wise?” No, population-wise. The answer, he said, is that he and his wife have a growing brood of three boys. “They drive you crazy at times but then you get out here for a day and you miss them,” he said. “It’s been awesome.”

Left hand down under. Adam Scott, wielding the putter with a cross-handed grip that he began using in Hartford, had a good start. He shot a bogey-free 4-under 66 and tied for second. “I was struggling the other way and I think, technically, this is a good stroke for me,” he said. “It feels good so I’m sticking with it.”

The other Watson. It was Bubba, not Tom, who grabbed the first-round lead with a 64. He had a great moment on Golf Channel afterwards, saying his only goal this week was to make the cut. Told that there is no cut this week, Watson answered, “Then that’s perfect — I made it!’

Watson went off on the back nine and reeled off four birdies in a row from holes 11-14. He finished the round off with a 35-foot birdie putt on the 18th. It was pretty impressive for a guy who had never seen Firestone before this week, and who spent the previous two weeks vacationing with his parents at a lake house in North Carolina. His dad is battling throat cancer and the post-British Open break was Watson’s first chance to see his family since he got his breakthrough victory in Hartford.

He did squeeze in a little golf while filming an episode of the Shaquille O’Neal reality sports show in which Bubba and Charles Barkley teed it up against Anthony Kim and Shaq. “It was a good time,” Watson said, “and Charles Barkley is not very good at golf.”