Curtis shows class of an Open champion to inch clear of Clarke

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The Independent Online

Ben Curtis gave his countryfolk a taste of the form that stunned the golfing world at Sandwich last month. The Open champion took a mere 23 putts in his 64 to grab the early lead in the first round of the NEC Invitational here yesterday.

Back in a tie for second place in the clubhouse at the $6m (£4.2m) event was Darren Clarke, the only European to capture one of these World Championship titles. The Ulsterman's 65 at Firestone was good enough to put him alongside the world No 1 Tiger Woods.

And like Curtis, Clarke did not have a bogey on his card. "I played very nicely," he said. "I'm not saying this course is easy, but it's a bit of relief after last week." Clarke missed the halfway cut in the US PGA Championship at Oak Hill.

It was not the most promising of starts when he hit a tree with his drive on the 497-yard second and finished on the adjoining third fairway. But a 50-yard pitch to eight feet still enabled him to birdie the hole. Further birdies came on the third, fifth, 10th and 12th and a massive drive on the long 16th gave him hopes of another.

Clarke had 276 yards to get to the front of the green and, even with water in front, took a three-wood out of his bag three times and thought about going for it. Eventually he decided not to and was left wishing he had when he pitched into sand over the green. But he saved par and scrambled fours on the two closing holes.

Curtis, who is getting married straight after tomorrow's third round, admitted he went out with an attitude of "good or bad I don't care - this will be the best week of my life no matter what I shoot".

Woods showed his liking for this course's lay-out again from the time he birdied the second. It is now nine sub-70 rounds in a row on it and, even if he does not have a major to his name this year, he remains the man to beat.

Colin Montgomerie was content enough with his two under 68, saying: "It's important to make a decent start and that is." But Padraig Harrington admitted he thought about pulling out en route to his 73. "I spent most of the day wondering whether it was time to go home," the Dubliner said.

Paul McGinley and Lee Westwood both returned 70s - and for Westwood that was miserable. Four under par and sharing the lead after 16 holes he triple-bogeyed the 17th and bogeyed the last. "What can you do?" he asked. "Can you give me anything to be optimistic about after that?"