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Firestone Plays Long And Soft

A year ago Tiger was the only one to break par. Today, 33 players cracked the barrier.

AKRON, Ohio (AP) -- Retief Goosen, a late arrival and an early starter, took advantage of a Firestone South course that played long and short on his way to a 4-under 66 that gave him a one-shot lead in the Bridgestone Invitational on Thursday.

One year after Tiger Woods was the only player to break par, Goosen and 32 other players in the 80-man field met only minor resistance on a balmy afternoon at this World Golf Championship.

Vijay Singh and former Masters champion Zach Johnson were among those at 67, while Steve Stricker was headed for the outright lead until running into trouble off the tee late in his round, losing three shots in two holes and joining another large group at 68.

The length came from rain earlier in the week that softened Firestone and made it play every bit of its 7,400 yards. Tim Clark, a medium hitter who was at 67, hit his hybrid so often he was amazed it had any grooves left.

And the short? That would be the rough.

It was so deep last year that players often had trouble just getting it back to the fairway, and there were shots that squirted sideways leading to several big numbers. But the rough is only about 2 inches this year, at least giving players a chance.

"Last year, the rough here was almost out of control. This year, the rough is very average and it's part of an experiment they're doing. They're trying to see if the rough height has any effect on scoring."

Based on Thursday's scoring, there's no need to send the data to MIT.

Goosen, who arrived Wednesday at the tournament in time for rain to wash out his scheduled practice round, was in the second group out and didn't find any trouble until he missed the par-3 15th green to the left and made his only bogey. It was another step in the right direction for the two-time U.S. Open champion, who has not had a top 10 on U.S. soil since he tied for second in the World Golf Championship at Doral in March.

"The course is playing tough," Goosen said through a European Tour official after declining to speak to reporters. "I'm not saying it's playing easy, but the rough is not nearly as thick as it was last year."

Phil Mickelson, cryptic in his criticism of the high rough at the Memorial two months ago, finished with a birdie on the 18th after scrambling out of the trees and shot 68. He said Firestone has become one of his favorite courses this year.

"You fall in love with a golf course when you have a setup that's as wonderful as this," Mickelson said. "The greens are fast, the pin placements are great, the rough is challenging but fair and it lets you hit some recovery shots. This year, Firestone is one of my favorite golf courses that we have on tour."

It allowed for one amazing recovery for Mickelson. He was left of the trees on the 18th, 169 yards away, contemplating whether to hit a 9-iron, wedge or a lob wedge over the trees. He settled on a 4-iron under the trees to 15 feet for an unlikely birdie.

"It was risky, but it paid off," Mickelson said.

British Open champion Padraig Harrington was in the group at 69 that included Sergio Garcia.

Not everyone took advantage, the most noteworthy being Kenny Perry.

The hottest player on the PGA Tour -- at least those still playing not recovering from knee surgery -- Perry came to this WGC event having won three times in his last six starts. But he struggled to hit fairways and make putts, and he wound up with a 74.

Masters champion Trevor Immelman opened with a 75, while Woody Austin didn't help his Ryder Cup cause with a 71. Austin is ninth in the U.S. standings with two tournaments left to earn one of eight automatic spots.

Goosen hasn't won since the Qatar Masters in January 2007, which moved him up to No. 6 in the world. He has fallen to No. 39 as he struggles to put together his swing, and he headed home to Florida from the Canadian Open to work with his coach.

He showed signs at the U.S. Open when he had two sub-70 rounds and tied for 14th, and at the British Open, where he was in contention going into the weekend. But he has never fared well at Firestone, recording only one top 10 in six appearances.

It helps not having to deal with Woods, a six-time winner on this track.

"The guy that's won here every year is not here, and all the losers are still here," Goosen said. "It's nice."

Woods' absence was obvious in other ways.

The course was virtually empty, with most of the traffic following Mickelson and Ernie Els (69). Stricker hit a 5-iron over the bunker on No. 4 to 6 feet for birdie that put him at 5 under, and all of 17 fans followed him to the next hole. Some of the concession stands had no visitors, about like a Montreal Expos game before they moved to Washington.

Woods, who finished at 8-under 272 for an eight-shot victory, might not have recognized the place. Some felt the Bridgestone Invitational last year was even tougher than the PGA Championship the following week at Southern Hills.

That might not be the case this year, although it was still a stern test.

"It's just a good course," Stricker said. "It's got length, it's got rough, it's got tough greens. So you need to be on your game."