McDowell surges as Woods wobbles

It was a bit like watching the late Alex Higgins taking five minutes to pot a simple red or seeing Phil “The Power” Taylor completely miss the dart board. It was GUBU golf - grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented.

Tiger Woods - a man bidding for his eighth World Golf Championship victory at Firestone Country Club in ten starts - slumped to a 74 to finish the day 10 strokes behind leader Bubba Watson on four over par as US Open champion Graeme McDowell birdied his last four holes for a 66 to share second place with Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and Kenny Perry on four under par.

Without a win this year, Woods felt confident before the start that his love affair with the tree-lined course on the outskirts of Akron would signal the beginning of an end-of-season resurgence.

But if Firestone is a yardstick by which we can gauge the current state of his game, the figures are revealing.

In 44 previous rounds at Firestone’s South Course - nine WGCs and two NEC World Series - Woods has averaged an incredible 67.75 strokes with his worst score a pair of two over par 72s.

His 45th effort was light years away from that standard as he hit just five of 14 fairways and took 32 putts.

“It’s frustrating because I warmed up well,” said Woods, who is tied for 70th in the 81-man field. “My practice sessions at home were good. Today was not indicative of how I have been playing. The last three holes I hit some good drives but the majority of the day I didn’t ….. Just becuase I like the golf course doesn’t mean I am going to play well on it.”

With his number one ranking under threat from Phil Mickelson and playing partner Lee Westwood, who shot a lacklustre 71, Woods lurched to the turn in three over par and did well in the end to limit the damage.

He bogeyed the first when he pulled his tee shot into the rough, bunkered his second and failed to hole a 40 footer. He then three-putted the second from 32 feet and bogeyed the par-three fifth by taking two to escape from a greenside trap.

While he birdied the sixth thanks to a 180-yard approach that stopped two feet from the stick, he missed a 10 foot chance at the next and then failed with a four footer for par at the ninth.

Another shot went at the 11th, where he drove behind a tree and could only  chip back to the fairway and after escaping with a par after another wild drive into trees at the 13th, he was 30 yards wide of the middle of the fairway at the 14th and dropped another shot there to slip to five over.

He made just his second birdie of the day at the 17th, where he holed a seven footer and ironically bowed to the fans on each side of the green before closing with a par at the last.

Bidding to go one better than last year, when he was second to Woods, Padraig Harrington carded a one under par 69 to finish the day tied fo 18th place.

He hit just three fairways on the front nine as he mixed birdies at the par-five second and the par-three seventh with a bogey at the sixth, where he was bunkered greenside.

He birdied the seventh from 11 feet to turn in one under par but after starting home with six straight pars - the one at the short 15th was a one in a million effort as he caroomed 70 yards past the pin off a cart path but hit his recovry to three feet - he could only chip out awkwardly from under a tree at the 16th and dropped a shot before holing a 13 footer for birdie at the 17th.

The three-time Major winner complained that he was suffering from dehydration but confessed that he was delighted to escape with a one under par effort and promised he wouldn’t make the same mistake in Friday’s second round.

McDowell birdied the par-five second to turn in one under par and while he bogeyed the 10th following a hooked drive, he birdied the 15th, 16th and 17th from around 15 feet each time before draining a nine footer at the last for his fourth birdie on the spin.

“I think you certainly believe you can beat the world’s best when you’ve beaten a field like the US Open field,” McDowell said.  “You definitely feel more comfortable in the mix in a tough event like this.  I mean, Firestone hasn’t really been a course that’s been kind to me over the years.  Probably I haven’t been long enough off the tee.

“I put a longer driver in the bag this week, and I’ve actually picked up about 15 yards.  That’s kind of really helped me off the tee.  This golf course is a lot about driving the ball.  I did that great today, and if I can keep doing that, hopefully I can compete on the weekend.

“It was a nice finish and I actually played good today as I hit a lot of fairways and the only fairway I missed was the 10th where I had my only bogey of the day, and it’s probably the best golf I’ve played since Pebble Beach,” he said.

“It’s funny this week because I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders as I have not really been in the limelight, and I have been a bit under the radar which has been nice.

“I have really been practicing well the last two days and it was nice to go out there and hit fairways and hit good iron shots, and make some putts.”

Big-hitting leader Watson might be bidding to become the first player to win the prestigious Bridgestone Invitational on his debut but the 31-year old confessed that he’d trade his sole PGA Tour victory for a place in Corey Pavin’s US Ryder Cup team.

The man from Bagdad in Florida took advantage of soft, windless conditions at Firestone Country Club to compile a spectacular six under par 64 and snatch a two-stroke lead over veteran Kenny Perry and world number two Phil Mickelson and Australia’s Adam Scott.

One of only a handful of left-handers on the PGA Tour, Watson was only two under par for his round with eight holes to play when he caught fire by picking up five birdies against just one dropped shot in a homeward nine of 31.

“My main goal this year on the PGA TOUR was to make the Ryder Cup, and I’ve got two good weeks to go to have a shot at it,” said Watson, who broke his tour duck by claiming June’s Travelers Championship after a play-off with Pavin and Scott Verplank.

Watson has other things on his mind right now apart from golf and the race to make the US Ryder Cup team to take on Colin Montgomerie’s Europe at Celtic Manor in October.

He dedicated his maiden PGA Tour win to his father, who is battling cancer and confessed that he has spent much of his time since the British Open with his family.

“He’s battling throat cancer,” Watson revealed. “They said lung but it is throat cancer, in the lymph nodes. So got to see my family for the first time since I won, hung out with them as much as possible.”