The magical improbability of what almost happened at Firestone County Club on Friday didn’t start when Tiger Woods went birdie, eagle, birdie on the first three holes.
It started when Woods posed for a cellphone picture at Starbucks with 8-year-old Sophia Carpenter of Dalton. Carpenter and her family had stopped to eat breakfast on the way to the course when they ran into the world’s No. 1 golfer.
Hours later, as he walked from the 14th green to the 15th tee, Woods handed a golf ball to a girl he later said he didn’t recognize. The girl was Carpenter.
That golf ball’s value would have skyrocketed had Woods converted two makeable putts after his kind gesture during the second round of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. After four consecutive birdies starting at No. 10, Woods had the PGA Tour’s record-low round of 59 in his sights.
The seven-time champion of the Bridgestone Invitational had to settle for tying the South Course record of 9-under 61. He already owned a share, carding the same score during the second round of the 2000 Bridgestone Invitational, which matched Jose Maria Olazabal’s 61 in the first round of the 1990 NEC World Series of Golf.
“Am I disappointed? Absolutely not, nope,” Woods said. “Sixty-one is pretty good. I’m not bummed.”
The score left Woods at 13 under par, 7 shots better than defending champion Keegan Bradley and Chris Wood, a 25-year-old Englishman making his first appearance at Firestone.
On Woods’ final nine holes, the atmosphere on the South Course was electric. He shot 30 on the front nine, which also included a birdie at No. 7, and made the turn 9 under for the tournament. He began another birdie binge with a 7-foot putt at No. 10.
Walking up the 11th fairway, fans started to sense what could happen.
“Do your thing, baby,” one man yelled.
“Keep it up, Tiger,” said another.
As Woods prepared to roll in a 5-foot birdie putt at No. 11, a squirrel scampered into the middle of the fairway and stayed for a minute or two, almost as if it could feel the vibe and wanted a better view of history.
With every putt, the tension grew. Woods connected on a 20½-foot birdie at No. 12, the ball slowing just inches from the cup. At No. 13, his tee shot hit a tree on the right and bounced into the fairway, and he ended up sinking a 14-footer for birdie.
“They were excited. You could hear it more than feel it,” Woods said of the gallery that grew as he went. “They were into it.
“It’s nice to be playing in front of people who are excited like that. Especially people who aren’t just yelling because your ball gets in the air. You know, we are pros.”
As he left the 13th green, 59 was on everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. “Going for 59,” whispered a woman along the ropes at No. 14, almost afraid to say it out loud.
In the twosome behind Woods, Adam Scott saw every putt Woods made. But he didn’t feel the energy.
“It’s not like a major or anything like that when it can filter around the course,” Scott said. “You need to be in the group to feel that.”
Joel Gerberich, 17, the standard bearer for Woods and playing partner Hideki Matsuyama, certainly felt it.
“When he was going, it was high,” Gerberich said. “The last three holes you could feel the tension out there. Especially the last hole, you could feel everyone hoping he’d come through on those last 2 shots.
“It was really incredible to watch. It was amazing to be that close for every shot and witness that.”
Asked what impressed him most about Woods, Gerberich said: “Beyond his playing ability, his mental game is wild. Every hole, people are yelling at him and he’s so focused.”
Even with such focus, 59 was not to be. Woods’ birdie try from 9 feet on No. 15 slipped past on the right edge. His 30-foot attempt on No. 16 came up short. A putt from 6 feet, 7 inches on No. 17 failed to drop. He sank a 26-foot par save from the back of the 18th green to match the course record. Woods first raised one arm, then the club with the other, then doffed his cap as the crowd roared.
Woods failed to join the 59 Club, which includes Al Geiberger (1977 Memphis Classic), Chip Beck (1991 Las Vegas Invitational), David Duval (1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic), Paul Goydos (2010 John Deere Classic) and Stuart Appleby (2010 Greenbrier Classic). Woods has shot that score unofficially once, when he was playing at his old home course, Isleworth Golf and Country Club in Windemere, Fla., with friend Mark O’Meara in 1997.
“Just a couple more coming in, I had opportunities at 15 and 17,” Woods said. “When you’re playing a par-70, it’s certainly a lot easier. But, still, 9 under through 13 is pretty good.”
Gerberich, a goalie on the Revere High School soccer team, experienced a moment of fate involving Woods almost like Carpenter’s. Gerberich said he had carried the walking scoreboard at the Bridgestone Invitational five or six times before, although never for Woods. After Friday’s player assignments were drawn, he was offered the opportunity to trade for Bubba Watson.
“They said they really love Bubba and nobody expected Tiger to do this well,” Gerberich said.
That was an error in judgment, even if the seven-time champion hasn’t won at Firestone since 2009.
Woods enjoyed the moment, laughing and joking with the media afterward, but didn’t exaggerate its importance. He’s still focused on his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors, which Woods trails by four. He didn’t rank this 61 among his top 10 rounds.
Carpenter felt the same way during her brush with history. When Woods handed her his ball, she turned and gave it to her friend, Hannah Justice, 9, of Green.
“Good friend,” Justice said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.