Woods' struggles lets in Mickelson

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The Independent Online

Just when Tiger Woods seems to have hit his lowest point so the ground opens and gobbles up a little bit more of this fallen idol. Yesterday's 74 in the opening round of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational puts both his world No 1 status and his Ryder Cup berth in perilous danger.

This could just have been the most humbling day of his professional career. At a Firestone course where he has enjoyed unprecedented success, Woods is 10 shots off the pace, tied for 70th in an 81-man field. He has won in Akron seven of the 10 times he has played there and has yet to finish worst than fourth. Coming in, his average after 40 rounds on the 7,400-yard layout was 67.5.

With six bogeys and two birdies he dramatically increased that last night, as he did his highest first round at Firestone – by a staggering six shots. If anyone is still in any doubt whether the sex scandal has affected Woods's game or his psyche then they were obviously not tuned into his latest car crash.

This is his eighth event in his comeback since his self-enforced exile and although he has always pleaded patience as he goes through the "process" his form is deteriorating. On the eve of the tournament he declared how happy he was with his driving. Yesterday it was just as bad as his putting. Woods managed to fly in the occasional fine approach; yet on so many occasions he failed to convert. When he eventually did, on the 17th, he was reduced to performing a faux celebration. This image was about as far removed from that of the old Tiger as it is possible to imagine.

What would have made his mood even more miserable was the sight of Phil Mickelson up there in a tie for second, two behind Bubba Watson on four-under. The left-hander could even finish fourth and usurp Woods as world No 1 on Sunday. The manner in which he fought back after dropping two shots in the first six holes, suggests that Mickelson's time has finally come.

But Lee Westwood may have to wait. Playing alongside Woods, he seemed affected by atmosphere that encloses his playing partners nowadays and at one-over is not yet in sight of the top-two position he needs to become Britain's first world No 1 in 16 years. As it is, United Kingdom hopes have mostly been raised by Graeme McDowell, whose 66 was the best of the afternoon starters. The last time he played Stateside the Ulsterman won the US Open.

But as commendable as McDowell's display was, the headlines would inevitably be wrested by Woods. The next 10 days could be the most intriguing of his era. Next week's USPGA Championship is the last qualifying tournament for the Ryder Cup and with Woods currently out of the automatic positions his attendance at Celtic Manor in two months is growing more doubtful by the day. On this form America would be far better off without him.