AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Hole by hole, the gallery grew larger and larger.
The word spread. Everybody lining the ropes in the third round of the Bridgestone Invitational — all concentrated on a single two-man group — wanted to see some history.
“Oh, they were excited,” Tiger Woods said. “You could hear it more than feel it. You definitely could hear it. They were into it.”
Woods flirted with a 59 — he just needed to go 2-under over the final five holes — but had to settle for a sterling 61 that tied his career best and swelled his lead to seven strokes after Friday’s second round.
The magic number 59 — shot five times on the PGA Tour — was in jeopardy for most of the afternoon at Firestone Country Club.
“Disappointed? Absolutely not,” Woods said. Then he cracked, “A 61′s pretty good. I’m not bummed.”
Pursuing his eighth victory at Firestone Country Club, Woods opened birdie-eagle — stuffing an approach to 3 feet at the first hole and holing a 20-footer for 3 at the par-5 second. He had two more birdies on the front nine, and had four in a row to start the back nine in a light rain.
But with people filtering away from every other group, and the excitement building, Woods missed birdie putts inside 10 feet at 15 and 17 and hit a couple of errant drives. He saved par on the last with a 25-footer after a wild tee shot and an iron shot that hit into the trees and ended up in a bare spot short and right of the green.
“How about just pleased?” Woods said, when asked to rate the round. “I’m very happy I was able to post that. I just kept thinking, whatever lead I had, ‘Let’s just keep increasing it.’ It’s at seven now, I believe. So that’s not too bad after two days.”
The 61 — matching his career best at the 1999 Byron Nelson, 2005 Buick Open and on the same Firestone course back in 2000 — left him at 13-under 127.
Defending champion Keegan Bradley and Chris Wood, playing the tournament for the first time, were tied for second. They each shot 68.
Bradley finished well before Woods, but was asked if it was disheartening to take the lead and then have Woods retake it after the opening two holes.
“Tiger, those first couple holes out there are definitely birdie holes, so I’d expect him to do that,” Bradley said. “You know, I hope he doesn’t go too low.”
Woods, a four-time winner this year, needed only 22 putts, eight fewer than he had Thursday in an opening 66. He hit 10 of 14 fairways and was on in regulation on 16 of 18 greens.
The next-best score on a threatening day with a slate-gray sky and precipitation was a 66.
How good were things going for him? He yanked a drive into the trees at 13, but it ricocheted into the middle of the fairway. From there he hit an iron to 15 feet and drilled the putt.
At the 14th, Woods hit his drive on the other side of the cart path beneath a canopy of huge trees to the right. He was forced to hit a low, hard, slicing shot to the green that ran to the back fringe. From there, he chipped 10 feet past but rolled in the par putt.
He stepped off his shot into the 216-yard, par-3 15th because he was bothered by a bug, then hit an iron 10 feet short of the pin. After playing partner Hideki Matsuyama of Japan putted out, Woods missed his birdie putt on the right side.
The 667-yard 16th, dubbed “The Monster” by Arnold Palmer, resulted in another par when Woods had to lay up and his wedge left him with a 30-footer for birdie.
Cheered by the fans 10 deep along the rope lines, he hit a long drive along the left side at 17. But he misread a 7-footer for birdie that missed on the low side of the break.
“I had opportunities to make putts there at 15 and 17,” he said.
With the rain now falling hard, and Woods needing to hole his second shot on the par-4 18th for a 59, he drove far to the right on the slight dogleg to the left. He muscled a shot out of a difficult lie to a bare spot near a huge scoreboard right and short of the green. From there, he chipped to the back fringe — and made the 25-footer coming back for par.
He pumped his fist as the crowd roared.
Matsuyama, a 21-year-old who was sixth at the British Open, got a close-up view.
“It was great looking at great play at the top of the world,” he said.
The last player to shoot 59 in a PGA Tour event was Stuart Appleby in the final round of the Greenbrier Classic in 2010. Al Geiberger was the first in 1977, and Chip Beck, David Duval and Paul Goydos also accomplished the feat.
Bill Haas shot a 68 and was tied for fourth at 5 under with Henrik Stenson, who had a 70. Jim Furyk, Luke Donald, Jason Duffner and Bubba Watson were 4 under.
There have been 27 rounds of 60 in tour events, including Phil Mickelson this year in the Phoenix Open.
In a career spent in the spotlight, a 59 would have been just another check mark on Woods’ to-do list. Instead, he didn’t think it was even anything special among his achievements.
“It’s up there. How about that?” he said agreeably. “It’s up there, but I don’t know about top 10.”
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