AKRON — A game marked by chance, decided with a crooked stick and a dimpled ball, has suddenly begun to make sense again for Hunter Mahan.
In the days leading up to the start of the Bridgestone Invitational, much of the attention was taken up by the star power of Tiger Woods, the philanthropic intentions of K.J. Choi, the waning health of Jim Furyk and the ascendance of Argentine sensation Andres Romero.
Few have noticed that the hottest golfer on the planet at the moment is a shaggy-haired Californian who has finished in the top 10 in each of his last four starts.
On a blistering day at Firestone Country Club, Mahan fired a 3-under 67 to finish in a three-way tie for first with Paul Casey and Rory Sabbatini. A crowded field of Woods, Mark Calcavecchia, Lee Westwood, Boo Weekley, Arron Oberholser and Stuart Appleby are just one shot behind.
Justin Rose, boosted by an eagle at the par-5 second, opened with a 69 to sit two off the lead, alongside Kenny Perry, Paul Goydos and Chris DiMarco.
Not too long ago, Mahan was viewed as one of the game’s brightest talents. But inexplicably, he lost his touch, overcome by the pressure and breadth of the pro tour. At one point earlier this year, he missed four consecutive cuts before finally securing his first victory in June.
Since then, Mahan has finished in the top 10 in each of his last four starts, including a victory at the Travelers Championship, and has climbed from 106th to 12th on the FedExCup points list.
The 25-year-old Mahan birdied three of his last five holes Thursday, displaying the patience and ease so sorely missing earlier in his game.
“You know, it was never physical,” Mahan said. “Some of my best ball-striking weeks I was missing cuts. I just mentally got better. I stopped getting mad at myself and took control of my game, instead of letting the game control me.”
Woods, hunting his sixth victory here in nine appearances, was satisfied with his opening round on one of his favorite layouts.
“I hit the ball pretty good today, just had a couple of loose shots and my short game was decent,” the 12-time major winner told reporters. “I had a pretty good touch on the greens.
“I feel comfortable around here. I don’t know what it is. This course just fits my eye and for some reason I’ve had some success here.”
Woods is bidding for a third successive title at Firestone, having never finished worse than tied for fourth.
But the course Thursday bore little resemblance to what Woods is used to at Firestone. A scorching 90-degree sun dried out the fairways and greens, creating a hard, unforgiving track.
Casey noted that the greens were among the fastest he’s seen all year.
“They always have the possibility of that, but usually not until Sunday afternoon,” Casey said. “There are a couple of greens out there which are very, very firm and very crusty already. I played early morning (Wednesday) at about 7:45 and the 10th green was baked — and that was first thing in the morning.”
Sabbatini described the dangers of leaving the fairway.
“The rough is insane out there,” he said. “It’s like you’re hitting the ball out of Velcro.”
Woods made a strong start with two birdies in his first six holes.
“The fairways are really quick and the greens are unbelievably quick,” Woods said. “If you end up above some of the holes, you’ve really got to pay attention because there are a couple out there where you could putt right off the green. It doesn’t take much.”
After teeing off at the par-four 10th, he holed a downhill putt from 20 feet at the par-3 12th before rolling in a 25-footer at the par-3 15th.
However, he bogeyed the 18th after pushing his tee shot into the right rough and finding a tree blocking his direct route to the green.
Out in 1-under 34, he collected more birdies at the second and fifth before dropping his second shot of the round at the sixth, where he hit his approach into a greenside bunker.
British Open champion Padraig Harrington, back in action for the first time since his playoff victory at Carnoustie 11 days ago, opened with a 72.
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or email@example.com.