- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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AKRON, Ohio -- Tiger Woods flirted with history on Friday at Firestone Country Club, settling for a 9-under-par 61 that matched his career-best score and gave him a commanding seven-stroke lead at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Woods birdied the first four holes on the back side but couldn't make another birdie coming in, although he made a 26-footer for par on the 18th after a poor tee shot to tie his career low, shot three previous times.
"Am I disappointed?" Woods said when asked about not getting to 59. "Absolutely not. Sixty-one is pretty good. I'm not bummed."
He was bidding to become just the sixth player to shoot 59 in PGA Tour history and was in position to do it through 13 holes, needing two more birdies (and no bogeys) on the closing five holes. Stuart Appleby was the last player to shoot 59 on the PGA Tour, at the 2010 Greenbrier Classic.
No player has ever broken 60 on the European Tour and Annika Sorenstam is the only LPGA player to achieve golf's Holy Grail.
It was Woods' best score since shooting a 61 in 2005 at the Buick Open. Woods hit 9 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens but took just 22 putts.
"I'm very happy I was able to post that," Woods said. "I just kept thinking, whatever lead I had, let's just keep increasing this lead, and I think it's at seven now. So not too bad after two days."
Woods has a seven-shot advantage over defending champion Keegan Bradley and Chris Wood, both of whom will be grouped with Woods on Saturday as the tournament goes to a two-tee start to avoid weather issues. Bill Haas and Henrik Stenson are tied for fourth, eight strokes back.
The next-best score of the day was a 4-under-par 66 by John Merrick. The scoring average for the day was 71.1. Playing partner Hideki Matsuyama shot 68, and the rookie pro from Japan had quite the front-row seat.
"It was a good lesson for me looking at his play, and I really enjoyed playing with him," Matsuyama, 21, told Japanese reporters. "I thought maybe 57 or 56 was possible. ... I had a great chance to see the world No. 1 player."
Woods, who has won the Bridgestone Invitational seven times and has captured 17 World Golf Championship events, has opened nine previous tournaments with two rounds of 66 or better and gone on to win each time. His last victory here was in 2009, when he closed the tournament with a pair of 65s.
Woods started fast, making a birdie at the first hole and then following with a 20-foot eagle putt at the second and another birdie at the third. After three straight pars, he birdied the seventh and turned in 30 strokes, 5 under par.
But things really got interesting on the back side as Woods birdied the first four holes, once after getting a good kick from the trees back into the fairway at the 13th. Another errant drive at the 14th meant some maneuvering to get his approach to the back fringe, from where he chipped to 7 feet and made the par putt to keep the round going.
"The funny thing is I didn't feel uncomfortable at all about being there," Woods said. "I shot (59) before back home in '97, and to do that at the time at my course (Isleworth near Orlando), you had to be 13 deep (under on par 72). I was only 9 under today at that point.
"I've been 10, 11 under par before out here, so to be 9, that wasn't uncomfortable or unusual. If I had to get to 13, it would be a different story, that's a lot. But just a couple more coming in, I had two opportunities to make a couple of putts there at 15 and 17, so it certainly was an opportunity. But still, 9 under through 13 is pretty good."
Woods missed from just outside of 10 feet at the par-3 15th, then wasn't able to go for the green from 275 yards at the par-5 16th, where he said he laid up to a perfect yardage (88 yards) but hit his wedge shot approach 30 feet beyond the hole and settled for par.
"I could have easily gotten there, but the problem was I was in the first cut (of rough) and against the grain," he said. "If it was down grain I would have gone, but against the grain, this grass is so thick, it just doesn't fly out of that first cut and I just can't take that chance.
"I laid up there, but I laid up in a slight depression. And I was on the down side of the depression and also against the grain and I can't take that chance. I've got to play long and play safe, which I did."
The possibility of a 59 still existed with birdies at the last two holes, but Woods missed a 7-footer at the 17th, all but ending the threat. And then an errant drive at the 18th forced him to play well to the right of the green, and a pitch to the back, where he holed the par putt.
Woods said the round probably doesn't rank in his top 10 all time, but "it's up there. I had a lot of control today from tee to green and obviously the way I putted. I felt I was in total control of my game, and obviously things like that don't happen every day, and it's fun when it all comes together and I was able to take advantage of it."
Tiger Woods flirted with history on Friday at Firestone Country Club, settling for a 9-under-par 61 that matched his career-best score and gave him a commanding seven-stroke lead at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.