Stricker lurks at Bridgestone
He didn't act much differently Thursday after his best round of the year.
Harrington finally saw some results after eight months of tinkering with his swing, making a pivotal par save early that sent him on his way to a 6-under 64 and a two-shot lead in the Bridgestone Invitational.
A boost of confidence? Not really.
"Has no relevance in the overall scheme of things," Harrington said. "It's just one round of golf. That's all it is. It doesn't change the last six months. It won't change the next six months. I wouldn't put too much significance into it, because what if I went out there and shot 76? Would I let it affect tomorrow? I think I would not put much emphasis on the fact that I shot 64. I'm comfortable with it."
It also put him atop the leaderboard for the first time all year, two shots clear of Scott Verplank, Tim Clark and Prayad Marksaeng of Thailand. The group at 67 included Edgerton's Steve Stricker and former Masters champion Zach Johnson.
What pleased Harrington were the two late birdies—a 25-foot putt on the seventh hole, and one from about the same range just short of the green at No. 8—that made a good round even better.
"I started off a little scrappy," said Stricker, who went on to make five birdies. "I didn't hit a couple good irons to start with, but then the middle of my front nine there and then to the other side, I played really well."
Stricker started on the back side and closed with birdies on Nos. 17 and 18 to turn in 34. He made a 6-footer at No. 17 and a 16-foot from the fringe at the 18th. Stricker also birdied two of his last three holes on the front—making a 25-footer at No. 7 and a 15-footer at the ninth.
"I finished strong," Stricker said. "I made a couple nice putts coming in. Good way to finish, two good, tough holes and make birdies, it's like stealing a couple shots."
The 67 was Stricker's career low at Firestone where his best finish in two previous starts was a tie for 41st in 2007. He's primed to improve on that this week, and he thinks the South Course is a perfect place to get ready for the upcoming PGA at Hazeltine National.
"This is almost a similar style golf course to what we're going to be playing next week, old style golf course with big trees and narrow fairways," Stricker explained.
The six-time PGA TOUR winner has other things on his mind, too. Stricker currently ranks second in the FedExCup race—overtaken by Tiger Woods with his victory last week. He finished second to Woods in the FedExCup in 2007 and was 14th last year.
"It's been good (to me)," Stricker said of the PGA's playoff system. "Hopefully I'll have a good finish to the season and then a good playoffs and have a chance in that last tournament. That's all you really want to do is have an opportunity in that last one.
"So hopefully that all pans out and I'll keep playing well."
Verplank, meanwhile, played with Harrington, and he was well aware of the stories that documented Harrington's incessant swing changes.
"I know he's struggled a little bit, and he's probably gotten a little too much criticism for working on his game," Verplank said. "But you know what? He's the only one that knows what he needs to do. If today is any indication, then he's doing something right."
Tiger Woods did enough right to open with a 68, the 11th straight time he has broken par in the opening round at Firestone. The world's No. 1 player is going for his seventh victory on this tree-lined course, and he was only four shots behind.
A week ago in the Buick Open, he was tied for 95th after a 1-under 71 in the first round and wound up winning by three shots.
"We were 1-under par, and I think I was in 15th or 17th spot—a little different than last week at 1-under par," Woods said. "You don't have to go super low here, just kind of plod your way along, make a few birdies here and there. And if you get on a little stretch like I did—make two in a row—all of a sudden you're in eighth place. That's what this golf course allows you to do."
Phil Mickelson opened with an even-par 70, along with defending champion Vijay Singh.
Lefty played for the first time since the U.S. Open and had a double bogey on his second hole. He settled into his game on the back nine, however, picking up three birdies to salvage a decent start.
For all his birdies, it was a par that got Harrington going.
He watched a marginal shot take a wicked bounce to the left of the 13th green, his fourth hole of the round, leaving him a tough chip with not much green between him and the flag. He hit it to 5 feet and made the putt.
Those were the pars he wasn't saving all year, and it seemed to free him up for the rest of the day. He surged into a share of the lead with a 12-foot birdie on No. 1 and a two-putt birdie on the par-5 second, then picked up bonus birdies from about 25 feet on the seventh and eighth holes, the latter from just short of the green.
Not since his 66-66 weekend at Oakland Hills last year at the PGA has he made the most out of a round, and those last two birdies certainly brightened his mood.
"I walked off the golf course feeling like I got a couple more shots," Harrington said. "And I feel good about the fact that I got one or two more. If I shot 66, I would have said, ‘Well, that's about right.' Sixty-four is a little bonus."
In such tame conditions, 40 players were at par or better.
Woods has never opened with worse than a 68 since he first came to Firestone in 1997, and while he wasn't particularly crisp, he came through with birdies on the 12th and 13th holes to alleviate any stress in his start.
"I hit it good on the front nine in stretches," Woods said. "Starting out, I hit a couple of bad shots there and in the middle part of the round I got it back. A little scratchy coming in, so it was kind of in spurts today."
British Open champion Stewart Cink, playing 18 holes for the first time since his playoff win over Tom Watson at Turnberry, bogeyed two of his last three holes for a 69. His only disappointment? He wasn't introduced as the British Open champion.
Mickelson has been more focused on his family. His wife and mother are battling breast cancer, although they are progressing enough that he could return to golf. Two holes into his round, he missed on a flop shot and a 3-foot putt and took double bogey, and Lefty went out in 38. He turned it around, however, and hopes he's not far off.
"I think when you get in competition, I wasn't trusting myself as much," Mickelson said.