By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AKRON, Ohio (Reuters) - For Tiger Woods, it was back to business as usual at one of his happiest hunting grounds as he moved ominously into contention at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Thursday.
The world number one has triumphed a record seven times in the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) event at Firestone Country Club and looked as good as ever here on the way to an opening four-under-par 66.
Woods took advantage of greens softened by overnight rain with some pinpoint iron play to put himself in a good position to push on for his fifth PGA Tour victory of the season.
"I felt pretty good today," the 14-times major winner told reporters after carding six birdies and two bogeys to end a warm, breezy day at Firestone two strokes behinds pacesetting American Webb Simpson.
"It was a little blustery, the wind was up and the greens were soft but at least the ball was flying. I feel very good about what I'm doing with basically my whole swing. I hit a lot of good shots.
"I had a really good feel for the distance today, and (caddie) Joey (LaCava) and I really read the wind right today. We changed a few shots out there, and we both had a really good handle on what we were doing feel-wise with the wind."
Woods, who last won here in 2009, birdied four of his last nine holes to surge up the leaderboard at a heavily tree-lined venue where he has always felt extremely comfortable.
"I've played terrible coming in here and I've played really well coming in and, for some reason on this golf course, I just see it," the 37-year-old said. "It's just one of those venues.
"Luckily over the years I've taken advantage of it. I have played well and I've scored well, and I've won my share of tournaments here."
Woods has posted 11 top-10s in 13 appearances at Firestone, his rare bad weeks here coming in 2010 and 2011 when he was battling back from the breakdown of his marriage and assorted injury problems, while also working on his fourth swing change.
"Unfortunately some of those times were when I was changing my swing and I was going through that change," he explained. "It's one of those things where you've still got to play well.
"But I still felt comfortable with what I was seeing out there even though I didn't play well. It's hard to explain, but I just feel comfortable seeing the shots here.
"You still have to execute, obviously, and over the course of my career here, I've done all right at doing that."
Woods, who is also aiming to build momentum for next week's PGA Championship at Oak Hill, was especially pleased with the improvement in his putting, which had cost him dearly in his title bid for last month's British Open.
He ended up in a tie for sixth at Muirfield in Scotland where his challenge for a first major victory in five years unraveled in the final round as he closed with a three-over-par 74.
"I thought I putted well," Woods said of his performance at rain-softened Firestone. "I had a good speed to it. I did some good work last night, had a really good handle on the feel.
"Obviously it changed overnight with the rain and I spent a little more time hitting some lag putts with a little moisture on it to see what it would do. Downhill putts were quick, but uphill putts were much slower than yesterday."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)