Akron: With Tiger Woods struggling, long-hitting American Bubba Watson stole the limelight from the game`s biggest names by surging into a two-shot lead in Thursday`s opening round at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Competing in the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) event for the first time, left-hander Watson birdied five of the last eight holes on a hot, humid afternoon to card a spectacular six-under-par 64 at Firestone Country Club.
He ended his round in outrageous fashion, finding the left rough off the 18th tee before hitting a lob wedge over trees to 36 feet and coolly sinking a curling putt from just off the green for a birdie.
Woods, seeking a record eighth win at one of his favourite venues, struggled in every area of his game as he chalked up a six-bogey 74, his worst score at Firestone in 45 rounds.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who could replace Woods as world number one after this week, fired a 66 to lie two strokes off the pace with fellow American Kenny Perry, Australian Adam Scott and U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell of Britain.
Four more Americans -- Chad Campbell, Sean O`Hair, Jeff Overton and Bo Van Pelt -- and double U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa opened with matching 67s.
Watson, who clinched his first PGA Tour title at the Travelers Championship in June, had never seen the tight, tree-lined Firestone layout before this week.
"I knew it was going to be tough but I putted really well, hit good iron shots and made it look a little bit easy," the 31-year-old told reporters after covering the back nine in four-under 31 and totalling only 22 putts.
"But we`re not done yet. We`ve still got three tough days of golf to go."
Watson, whose main target this year was to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team, felt he had benefited from his relaxed approach at Firestone.
"If it`s a win this week or whatever it takes to get into the Ryder Cup, that`s my main goal," he said. "I learned the golf course in a couple of days... so I`m just free-wheeling it, just having fun."
Woods, who had averaged a superb 67.75 in his previous 44 rounds at Firestone, took little comfort after finding only five fairways out of 14, struggling with his iron shots and totalling 32 putts.
"Just because I like the golf course doesn`t mean I`m going to play well on it," the 14-times major winner said. "You still have to execute, and I didn`t do that today."
"I`ve just got to hopefully tomorrow get it to even par or under par for the tournament and then hopefully put together a good weekend and see where that puts me."
Mickelson was delighted to recover from two bogeys in his first six holes after teeing off at the par-four 10th.
"It was a good day in that I got off to a poor start... and then was able to turn it around and shoot 30 on my back nine to get in good position," the left-hander said.
Mickelson would become world number one for the first time with victory this week. He would also take over at the top by finishing in the top four at Firestone if Woods places outside the top 37 and Britain`s Lee Westwood comes third or worse.