Low scoring trumps Tiger talk in Firestone build-up

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

Although the American world number one will be seeking a record eighth victory at one of his favorite venues, his bid for posterity has been totally overshadowed by the recent glut of low scoring on the U.S. circuit.

Two magical 59s have been recorded on the PGA Tour over the last month, along with a pair of 60s, and these feats have sparked widespread and animated debate among players, caddies, fans, officials and golf writers.

There was barely a mention of Woods at Firestone Country Club on Tuesday where eight players, including triple major winner Ernie Els and U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, held their pre-tournament news conferences.

"Two (59s) in the last three weeks, and before that (there were) only three in the lifetime of the PGA Tour," South African Els said.

"It's starting to look like the Nationwide Tour," he added with a broad grin, referring to the U.S. feeder circuit."

Australian Stuart Appleby fired an 11-under-par 59 to win the Greenbrier Classic on Sunday just three weeks after American Paul Goydos had posted the same score in the opening round of the John Deere Classic.

Prior to that, there had been only three previous 59s recorded on the PGA Tour with Al Geiberger doing so in 1977, Chip Beck in 1991 and David Duval in 1999.

While Els pointed out that soft course conditions had been a significant factor for the record-equaling scores by Goydos and Appleby, he was generous with his praise.

CAREER MILESTONE

"And then we get to a beast like this, (Firestone). I would hate to see a 59 this week because then I'll know I'm playing a different game," he added with another grin.

The par-70 Firestone is a tough, tree-lined layout which generally bares its teeth with firm, fast-running greens.

"You have to make everything (putting-wise), and you can only do that basically on receptive greens," Appleby said of the recipe for shooting a 59. "None of these rounds (59s) are shot on firm greens, I can assure you of that."

Britain's McDowell, who shot a 59 while practicing on his home Royal Portrush course a few weeks ago, agreed.

"I think a 59 is about putting," the Northern Irishman said. "You can only hit the golf ball so well. After that you've got to hole some putts.

"Out here (in the U.S.) the weather is so much more consistent and they can get the greens to a much, much higher standard than we're used to in Europe and Asia and other places. It's conditioning of golf courses."

While Firestone has generally presented a tough challenge over the years, Woods has proved to be its master with a record seven victories at the Bridgestone Invitational.

He shares the course record of 61 with Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal and the American triumphed last year by four shots after closing with successive 65s.

Woods is scheduled to tee off with British world number three Lee Westwood at 1:50 p.m. EDT in Thursday's opening round at Firestone.

(Editing by Ian Ransom)