By Tom Gaffney
Beacon Journal staff writer
Being in a prime position after the first round of any golf tournament is enviable but comes with no guarantees.
Bubba Watson realizes that after shooting a 6-under-par 64 on Thursday on the South Course at Firestone Country Club to take the 18-hole lead in the Bridgestone Invitational.
''It's tough to make shots around this golf course,'' said Watson, 31, who has one title in his five-year PGA Tour career. ''I knew it was going to be tough, but today I just putted really well, hit good iron shots and made it look a little bit easy.
''But we're not done yet. We've still got three tough days of golf to go.''
Tied for second place at 4-under 66 were Phil Mickelson, Kenny Perry, Adam Scott and Graeme McDowell, followed by five players at 67 and another seven at 68.
Defending-champion Tiger Woods, who has won the event a record seven times, was tied for 70th in the 81-player field after a 4-over 74.
Watson, a left-hander, gained his tour card in 2006 after finishing in the top 25 in earnings on the Nationwide Tour. He went without a tour victory for 41/2 years before winning the Travelers Championship on June 27 in Cromwell, Conn.
Watson, playing in the morning when the course was soft after an overnight rain, held the lead despite some erratic shotmaking that saw him hit only six of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens in regulation. He saved himself on the greens, needing only a round-best 22 putts.
His putter was lethal in a crucial stretch on the back nine when he birdied four consecutive holes, highlighted by putts of 15 feet on No. 11, 12 feet on No. 12 and 13 feet on No. 14.
Watson credited his opening-round success to making a quick study of the South Course and to being mentally and physically fresh.
''I've never been here, so I learned the golf course in a couple of days,'' said Watson, a resident of Bagdad, Fla. ''But at the same time, two weeks off, stayed on the lake, did some stuff, wasn't playing any golf, so I'm just free-wheeling it, just having fun.''
Mickelson, 40, who could move to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings with a victory this week, played the back nine first and was off the leaderboard with a 1-over 36.
However, the front nine was an instant revitalization for him with five birdies and four pars for a 5-under 30 that left him at 66.
''It was a good day in that I got off to a bad start . . . and then was able to turn it around . . . to get in good position after the first day,'' said Mickelson, the 2010 Masters Tournament champion.
Mickelson's key moment came on the 469-yard No. 6, when he just looking just to save par after a poor tee shot. Instead, he sank a 50-foot flop shot from the primary rough for a birdie. He was just 1 under par before that shot and followed with two more birdies in his final three holes.
''It was a good lie, and it wasn't a difficult up-and-down,'' he said. ''But I was certainly fortunate for it to go in.''
Perry, who will turn 50 next Tuesday, had a bogey-free round marked by four birdies, all on par-4 holes. His most spectacular birdies came when he chipped in from 38 feet on No. 11 and sank a 17-footer on No. 18.
Perry has only one top-10 finish in eight starts at Firestone, and needed all his professional guile to avoid mediocrity Thursday.
''I didn't feel like a 66. I felt awkward over the golf ball. I didn't feel comfortable over it, but it just kept going on the green and I kept surviving,'' said Perry, who has three wins at the Memorial in Dublin among his 14 tour titles. ''All in all, I am ecstatic with the start of the week.''
Scott, 30, a native of Australia who now lives in Switzerland, is seeking redemption after finishing in a tie for 56th and 51st in the tournament in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Scott was just as steady as Perry with a card that also included four birdies and no bogeys. His putter was productive when he sank birdie putts of 22 feet on No. 5 and 33 feet on No. 9.
''I am really pleased with today. No bogeys, it's been awhile since I had a round like that,'' Scott said. ''I played really nicely, and the couple of times I was a little off course, I managed to scramble well and not drop any shots.''
McDowell, 31, a Northern Ireland resident and the 2010 U.S. Open champion, was flirting with a par round when he birdied the final four holes to jump into the tie for second place.
The late flurry was fueled by birdie putts of 13, 12, 16 and nine feet on the closing four holes.
''I had a nice finish,'' McDowell said. ''So nice to hole some putts. Putter has been a little cold . . . so it's nice to get that thing heated back up again.''
Woods, 34, hit only five of 14 fairways and needed 32 putts in that round of 74 that featured six bogeys, including on his first two holes.
''I just didn't play well. I didn't get off to a good start, obviously,'' Woods said. ''I didn't hit any good putts either. I was struggling on the greens and didn't hit any good iron shots.''
Stow's Ben Curtis, 33, a former Kent State All-American, shot a 1-under 69 to tie for 18th place.