Finding your putting touch and a dollop of confidence is vital for anyone with major ambitions.
Just ask former world number ones Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods, who opened with rounds of 67 and 68 respectively in the $8.5m WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club.
As Australia’s Adam Scott fired a brilliant, eight under par 62 to lead by a shot from compatriot Jason Day (63) and by three from American Nick Watney (65), Woods produced a solid putting display as he made an encouraging return to the game after 12 weeks on the sidelines with left knee and Achilles tendon injuries.
Currently 28th in the world, the 14-time major winner saved pars from 17 feeet at the third, six feet at the eighth and a 20 feet at the ninth to turn in level par before picking up two shots on the way home by sandwiching birdies at the 10th, 11th and 16th between a lone bogey at the 14th.
As playing partner Darren Clarke finish joint last with Irish Open winner Simon Dyson after an error-strewn 77, Woods confessed that he was encouraged not just by his putting but by the way his left knee held up and the amount of power he was able to apply through the ball.
“As Darren said, I was hitting proper shots out there,” Woods said. “It was fun to be able to hit the ball with that much flush feeling through the golf ball and the speed I had. It was pretty nice.”
The 35-year old, whose 68 was a six-shot improvement on his opening round last year, added that he was not sure what to expect as he stood on the first tee for the first time since he limped out of the Players Championship after just nine holes, three months ago.
“It feels great,” Woods added. “Anybody who’s been injured, first time back, it’s a little nervous to see what happens.
“But by practice sessions were good, so there’s no reason why I should be worried out there. I went out there and just let it go, let it rip and see what happens.”
If Woods was happy, so too was Westwood, who has started working with putting guru Dave Stockton and mental coach Dr Bob Rotella after seeing them work wonders for two stablemates.
Stockton helped Rory McIlroy turn his putting around and win the US Open while Rotella’s mental magic was instrumental in Darren Clarke’s Open win just two weeks ago.
Having missed the cut in the Open at Sandwich, Westwood decided that he simply had to improve his putting and his mental game if he is to get over the line and win a major.
Declaring that he probably hadn’t putted as well since he won the 2009 Dubai World Championship, the 38 year old said: “I’ve won a couple of times this year, lost in a play-off for the PGA and finished third in the US Open and I haven’t had a good putting week yet.
“I don’t want to sound big headed but I keep going round in circles and I haven’t had a good putting week since Dubai in 2009 and that is not good enough.
“You are going to be falling behind all these fellas because you can’t give them that much of an advantage on the greens. I just haven’t been making enough putts and that becomes frustrating and that filters down through the rest of your game.
“I work hard and part of what Bob (Rotella) was saying to me on Sunday was that you work hard to be able to stand on the golf course and let it go, free wheel and that’s what I did today.”
While Woods and Westwood were happy, Clarke was licking his wounds after a seven over 77 left him joint last with Dyson.
Three over after seven, the 42-year old holed out from 184 yards for an eagle two at the eighth, but bogeyed the 10th and 11th to slip to three over par before following up a double bogey seven at the 16th, where he found water with his approach, with a brace of bogeys to finish.
“I hit plenty of fairways but I just could hole a putt to save my life,” Clarke after a practice session following his round. “Nothing would go in for me. I hit plenty of fairways but just didn’t get anything going on the green.
“But I’m not complaining. Two weeks ago plenty to things went right for me.”
Padraig Harrington hit just six fairways and only seven greens in a one over par 71, sandwiching bogeys at the 13th, 17th and 18th between birdies at the 12th and sixth in his first start since he split with coach Bob Torrance.
“Well there was some good and some bad out there, that’s about it really,” said Harrington, who was the last player to leave the driving range following his round. “It was just one of those days, a 71. It was a day for good scoring but I didn’t hit it close enough or really feel good.”
Harrington said: “I probably would have shot 71 on a tough day out there, that’s the kind of day it was. So I have a bit of work to do but, as I said, there are obviously low ones out there.”
Asked if he was frustrated, he added: “Not really, no. I stuck in there and was pretty good mentally so there’s no frustration really.”