Three days after the major championship season ended, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh played as if they still have plenty to prove yesterday by taking a share of the lead at the NEC Invitational in Akron, Ohio.
Woods twice escaped trouble from the trees but never came close to making bogey on a Firestone course that offered no letup for those coming off the PGA Championship. He made a 15-foot birdie on his final hole for a 4-under 66, and later was joined by Singh and Henrik Stenson of Sweden.
Singh had a chance to take the outright lead until missing a six-foot birdie putt on his 17th hole. He had to scramble from the rough to save par on the 484-yard ninth hole for a share of the lead.
Davis Love III carried his good play from Baltusrol into the first round and was among those at 67, while PGA champion Phil Mickelson was all smiles on his way to a 69.
"I didn't hit it great today, but I left myself with some easier up-and-downs when I did miss, so it wasn't so bad," said Woods, who has never finished lower than fifth in seven appearances at Firestone.
Woods and Singh were the only players to finish in the top 10 at all four majors this year, with Woods winning the Masters and British Open.
But there is still plenty at stake.
Singh has won the PGA Tour money title the last two years, and he trails Woods by about $185,000 with two months left in the season. And while Singh's four victories don't carry the weight as Woods's two majors, the 42-year-old Fijian is hopeful of another big run at the end of the year to warrant consideration for player of the year.
His putting didn't hold him back yesterday, it saved him.
Struggling with shots into the green, Singh saved par seven times from off the green and picked up ground on the opening holes, after he made the turn, with three straight birdies.
Stenson, playing in his first World Golf Championship event, looked as though he might steal the spotlight when he got to 6 under par with a 60-foot birdie on the par-3 fifth hole. But he missed the next two greens and dropped shots to fall into a share of the lead.
Several players arrived at Firestone having spent four grueling days at Baltusrol, and it was hardly a vacation. Under mostly sunny skies, the greens were firm and the rough was thick along the tree-lined fairways.
Stenson had never been to Firestone and was asked how he got acclimated so quickly.
"I went to Baltusrol," he said. "The rough was a little bit more severe last week, but it was the same way. You always struggle when you miss the fairways, and you can end up with some tough lies around the green. This one feels slightly easier."
* PGA TOUR: Defending champion Vaughn Taylor birdied six of his last eight holes for an 8-under 64 and took a one-stroke lead over Sweden's Fredrik Jacobson and Reno's Todd Fischer in the windy first round of the Reno-Tahoe Open in Reno, Nev.
Guy Boros was another stroke back at 6-under 66.