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Golf: Tiger flirts with lead in NEC first round

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posted on Aug, 20 2004 @ 08:47 AM
Free from the burden of trying to make the Ryder Cup team, Stewart Cink looked at ease Thursday on a marathon day at the NEC Invitational that ended with his name atop the leaderboard.

Three days after he was a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup, Cink made five birdies on his first 10 holes on soggy Firestone South to lead by one shot over Rod Pampling when the rain-delayed first round was suspended by darkness.

Only 16 players in the 76-man field finished their round, which did not begin until 2:45 p.m

Pampling was 4 under through 12 holes.

Tiger Woods had the lead to himself until he finished with back-to-back bogeys, both times missing 8-foot putts, to fall two shots off the lead. It was hard to tell what made Woods more upset -- ending his long day with bogeys, or having to return Friday morning to play one hole. He was 3 under through 17.

Zach Johnson [12 holes] and Carlos Franco [11 holes] also were at 3 under.

"I'm just [throwing] away too many shots out there," Woods said.

Still, it was a good start in his bid to hang onto the No. 1 ranking he has held the last five years, and Firestone is just the place for him.

Woods won the NEC Invitational three straight years [1999-2001] and has never finished lower than fifth. His worst opening-round score in six appearances at Firestone is a 67.

PGA champion Vijay Singh only has to finish ahead of Woods this week to become No. 1 for the first time in his career. Singh bogeyed two of the first three holes, then chopped up the trees on the right side of the ninth fairway to make double bogey and shoot 73.

"It's the least thing on my mind," Singh said. "I want to have a good tournament, and then evaluate the ranking at the end of the week."

Ernie Els also has a chance to reach No. 1. He was at 1 under through 11 holes.

Davis Love III, Jim Furyk and Thomas Levet of France were at 68, making them the clubhouse leaders.

A steady rain delayed the start of the NEC Invitational, first causing the tournament to go from twosomes to threesomes starting on both tees, then pushing back the tee times by two hours to late in the afternoon.

Els played one hole before play was suspended by storms for about an hour.

Thunder came from the gathering dark clouds, and more rumbling came from the vicinity of Woods' group. His temper flared on the opening hole when he badly pulled a 30-inch par putt, and despite three straight birdies from inside 4 feet to get to 2 under and a share of the very early lead, he lost it again.

First came a tee shot he pulled into the left bunker -- the pin was to the right -- and a fat shot out of the bunker that cause him to sling his sand wedge some 20 feet at his golf bag; then came a wedge out of the first cut that sailed to the right, followed by another tossed club.

Still, a chip-in from 80 feet short of the green put him tied for the lead at the turn, and then he looked like the Woods of old on one of his favorite tracks.

He holed a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 12, spun back his approach to 8 feet on the 13th and went to 5 under for the tournament with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 15th.

But he got swallowed up by the "Monster" -- the 667-yard 16th hole -- by pulling his tee shot into the rough, hitting across the fairway near the corporate tents, and bending his third shot around the tree and over the green.

Then, he had a relatively simple chip on the 17th after missing the fairway, but left it 8 feet short and missed.

Still steaming when he left the course, Woods at least was under par.

Singh bogeyed his opening hole, No. 10, then twice came up short and had to make an 8-foot bogey putt on No. 12. The 41-year-old Fijian got it back to even par, only to miss the 17th green and take bogey, then hack his way up the left side of the ninth fairway on his way to double bogey.

Masters champion Phil Mickelson wasn't much better. He missed a slew of putts inside 10 feet, and was at 2 over par with three holes left to play.

While afternoon storms are prevalent this time of the year, it was the first time since the 1999 NEC Invitational that the first round was not completed at Firestone South.

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