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Simpson takes early control at Firestone, Tiger lurks

AKRON, Ohio — It was case of love at first sight for Webb Simpson on his debut at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational as he spectacularly charged into an early one-shot lead in Thursday’s opening round.

While seven-times winner Tiger Woods also made a strong start, firing a four-under-par 66, Simpson seized control of the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) event with an eight-birdie 64.

On a breezy day of sunshine and sporadic cloud cover at Firestone Country Club, the former U.S. Open champion was in sizzling form on the greens, totalling only 22 putts to end the round a stroke in front of Swede Henrik Stenson.

Woods, who has triumphed a season-high four times on the 2013 PGA Tour, mixed six birdies with two bogeys to sit a further shot back, level with fellow American Ryan Moore and Englishman Chris Wood.

Simpson was elated to be the early tournament front-runner after taking full advantage of advice from his experienced caddie on how to play the heavily tree-lined Firestone layout.

“It was a great start,” the 27-year-old American told reporters after setting the tone for a low round with four birdies in his first nine holes.

“My caddie has been here so many years and I just had to listen to him. He basically showed me where to go yesterday and told me where to hit it, where the lines were, what clubs to hit.

“Today was one of those days where I just saw the lines well, and my speed was really good. You’ve got to have great speed because there’s so much slope in the greens.

“And the better the speed, the bigger the hole,” said Simpson, who missed out on making his debut at Firestone last year due to the birth of his daughter Willow.

IMPROVING FORM

Simpson has not triumphed on the PGA Tour since he clinched his maiden major victory at the 2012 U.S. Open but he has been encouraged by his improving form on the U.S. circuit this season.

“It’s encouraging and frustrating because I haven’t won and yet I’m 17th in FedExCup (standings),” he said. “I feel like I’ve let a couple of tournaments go that maybe I should have closed out or at least I should have contended more.”

Simpson has recorded four top-10s in 18 starts on the 2013 PGA Tour, his best finish a playoff loss to Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell at the RBC Heritage in April.

“If I’m getting better, I’m happy,” said Simpson. “And I do feel like I’m getting better, I just don’t have the results this year to show it.”

Woods has certainly had the results with four PGA Tour wins this season and he swiftly moved into familiar territory at Firestone, covering his back nine in four-under 31 to rocket up the leaderboard.

“I felt pretty good today,” said the 14-times major champion. “It was a little blustery, the wind was up and the greens were soft but at least the ball was flying.

“I feel very good about what I’m doing with basically my whole swing. I hit a lot of good shots. I had a really good feel for the distance today. I thought I putted well. I had a good speed to it.”

Woods has won a record seven times at Firestone, and has piled up a staggering 11 top-10 finishes in 13 appearances at the elite event.

“For some reason this golf course, I just see it,” said the world number one. “It’s just one of those venues. Luckily over the years I’ve taken advantage of it. I have played well and I’ve scored well, and I’ve won my share of tournaments here.”

Defending champion Keegan Bradley, British Open winner Phil Mickelson and Northern Irish world number three Rory McIlroy were among the late starters in the 73-man field.