By Michael Beaven, Jason Lloyd and Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports writers
Rickie Fowler already has earned one golf title in Summit County.
He is seeking another.
Fowler played the first round Thursday of the Bridgestone Invitational on the South Course at Firestone Country Club in Akron with a fond memory of the title he earned at the 2005 Hudson Junior Invitational.
His initial round, a 2-under-par 68, has him in a seven-way tie for 11th and puts him 4 shots behind the leader, Bubba Watson and his 64.
''This is the first time I have played here,'' Fowler said. ''It is pretty cool to be a part of it. This is a really good event and a really good course. It has a little bit of a major feel to it.''
Fowler, 21, is the youngest American-born player in the 2010 field.
Fowler, who had five birdies and three bogeys, said he vividly recalls his experience in Hudson.
''I remember the course,'' Fowler said. ''It was in really good shape and had fast greens. It was a fun event. I shot an 8-under 64 on the final day to come back and beat Vaughn Snyder, who is also a pro [and a former player at Canton Central Catholic, the University of Akron and Ohio State University].''
Fowler said success in Ohio is nothing new to him.
''I have actually had quite a bit of success in Ohio, starting basically at the Hudson Junior,'' said Fowler, a Las Vegas resident who was born in Anaheim, Calif.
''Last year, I almost won a Nationwide event down in Columbus. I ended up losing in a playoff. Earlier this year at the Memorial, I finished solo second. I am looking for another good finish in Ohio. I am trying to keep the good vibe going in Ohio.''
Fowler came to Akron after spending Monday in Fredericksburg, Texas, shooting scenes for a movie titled Seven Days in Utopia, a film that is based on the best-selling book by David Cook.
Fowler, American Stewart Cink and South Korean K.J. Choi were each in attendance Thursday for the opening round of the Bridgestone, and all three will appear in the film.
''It was a great time,'' Fowler said. ''I had a lot of fun.''
Fowler, Cink, Cameron Beckman, Mark Brooks and Bill Rogers will each make cameo appearances in the movie, which was shot at Boot Ranch Golf Course. PGA legend Hal Sutton designed the course.
Choi and Rich Beem each have larger roles in the movie and spent four days on the set.
Oscar-winning executive producer Mark Mathis is also part of the film, and actors Lucas Black and Robert Duvall are among the cast members.
Black will play the golf lead in the movie, which is scheduled to be released next summer.
David Champagne is not listed in the official results, nor is he eligible to win the Bridgestone Invitational, but he did play a round of 18 holes Thursday alongside Henrik Stenson of Sweden.
Champagne, in his third season as a golf pro at Firestone Country Club, played with Stenson because the field is at an uneven number (81) after Robert Allenby withdrew from the tournament due to an injury.
Champagne shot a 6-over-par 76, which was 3 strokes better than Stenson's 79.
''I think I did all right,'' said Champagne, who is originally from Rochester, N.Y., and lives in North Canton.
''I hit the ball pretty well. My goal is to stay out of his way and try to do my job. I am not here for me, I am out here for him.''
Champagne will also serve as Stenson's marker and partner today.
Birdieing five of his final eight holes, Phil Mickelson finished with a round of 4-under 66 to be tied for second with Kenny Perry, Australian Adam Scott and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell.
Teeing off at No. 10, Mickelson shot 1 over on the back nine with bogeys at Nos. 14 and 15 with a birdie at 16. He found his game on the front nine, birdieing Nos. 2, 3, 6, 7 and 9 for a 30 on the par-70 layout.
His best shot came at the 469-yard par-4 No. 6, when he pulled his iron shot to the right and was merely hoping to get up and down to maintain momentum. His lob wedge went in for birdie.
''When that lob shot went in the hole it gave me a nice boost,'' said Mickelson, who is No. 2 in the world rankings behind Tiger Woods. ''I made birdie and was able to get two more coming in.''
Playing partner Rory McIlroy said that was the best shot he has seen this year. Asked where it ranked for him, Mickelson said: ''It was a good one. There were some at Augusta that I remember a little more fondly than Thursday at Akron. It wasn't as hard as it looked to get up and down, but I was certainly fortunate for it to go in.''
Mickelson's best finishes at Firestone Country Club were seconds in the 1998 and 1999 NEC World Series of Golf. He has struggled here since 2003, with his best performance a tie for fourth in 2008.
''It was as a good day in that I got off to a poor start and was able to turn it around,'' Mickelson said.
He credited swing coach Butch Harmon with a good idea for his driver.
''Butch had a good idea to go to a shorter driver,'' Mickelson said. ''So I went to the guys at Callaway and had that FT9 head in a shaft that's only 44 inches and a shaft that's also 20 grams heavier. It alters the characteristics of the head. I've got to give the guys credit, to be able to get the spin rate and the ball flight right. I seemed to hit the ball a little bit straighter with it. My misses were inside the tree line, so I always had a shot into the green and I thought that led to more aggressive iron shots.
''It's only been a couple days. This might actually be in the bag for a while.''
Mickelson praised 21-year-old McIlroy, who finished at 2 under.
''He's fun, he's interesting, he's a smart guy, he's really got a great demeanor,'' Mickelson said. ''He's always upbeat, great to be around, not to mention his talent.''
Mickelson said he was amazed by the prowess of young players like McIlroy, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa (18 years old) and Fowler (21).
''I look at the guys today in their teens and 20s — McIlroy, Ishikawa, Fowler — their ball striking is so superior to where myself or other players my age were in our teens and 20s,'' Mickelson said.
McDowell, the U.S. Open champion, birdied his final four holes to post his 66.
''I had a nice finish,'' McDowell said. ''I hit a lot of fairways.
''I've been a bit under the radar this week. It's felt nice. I've really been practicing well the last two days and it was nice to go out there and play and hit some fairways and hit some good iron shots and make some good putts.''
Family news for Perry
Perry posted a bogey-free round of 66, which is his lowest opening effort at Firestone. He also recently learned he will be a grandfather.
''My oldest daughter told me she was pregnant on Sunday,'' Perry said. ''I'm going to be a granddad, so I stayed home. I didn't fly in here until late Wednesday, and just teed it up today.
''I really didn't have any goals, any expectations. . . . I've played a million rounds of golf here. I just knew what the golf course was like, and it just seemed like whenever I needed to make a putt, I made a putt. Whenever I needed to scramble, I scrambled well, and whenever I needed a quality iron shot I seemed to hit it."
England's Lee Westwood had a miserable third hole. His tee shot landed in the No. 2 fairway, his second shot landed behind a foot bridge and his third shot landed in a greenside bunker.
Westwood, who is tied for 37th with a 71 and is ranked No. 3 in the world, apparently blamed the ball. After tapping out for bogey, he flipped it to Cole Hague, who happened to be standing behind the ropes. Hague and his father had made the trip from Toronto to celebrate his 11th birthday.