AKRON, Ohio (AP) – Three days after the major championship season ended, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh played like they still have plenty to prove Thursday by taking a share of the lead in the NEC Invitational.

Woods twice escaped trouble from the trees but never came close to making bogey on a Firestone course that offered no letup for those coming off the PGA Championship. He made a 15-foot birdie on his final hole for a 4-under 66, and later was joined by Singh and Henrik Stenson of Sweden.

Singh had a chance to take the outright lead until missing a 6-foot birdie putt on his 17th hole. He had to scramble from the rough to save par on the 484-yard ninth hole for a share of the lead.

Davis Love III carried his good play from Baltusrol into the first round and was among those at 67, while PGA champion Phil Mickelson was all smiles on his way to a 69.

“I didn’t hit it great today, but I left myself with some easier up-and-downs when I did miss, so it wasn’t so bad,” said Woods, who has never finished lower than fifth in seven appearances at Firestone.

Woods and Singh were the only players to finish in the top 10 at all four majors this year, with Woods winning the Masters and British Open.

But there is still plenty at stake. Singh has won the PGA Tour money title the last two years, and he trails Woods by about $185,000 with two months left in the season. And while Singh’s four victories don’t carry the weight as Woods’ two majors, the 42-year-old Fijian is hopeful of another big run at the end of the year to warrant consideration for player of the year.

His putting didn’t hold him back Thursday, it saved him.

Struggling with shots into the green, Singh saved par seven times from off the green and picked up ground on the opening holes, after he made the turn, with three straight birdies.

Stenson, playing in his first World Golf Championship event, looked as though he might steal the spotlight when he got to 6-under par with a 60-foot birdie on the par-3 fifth hole. But he missed the next two greens and dropped shots to fall into a share of the lead.

Several players arrived at Firestone having spent four grueling days at Baltusrol, and it was hardly a vacation. Under mostly sunny skies, the greens were firm and the rough was thick along the tree-lined fairways.

Stenson had never been to Firestone and was asked how he got acclimated so quickly.

“I went to Baltusrol,” he said. “The rough was a little bit more severe last week, but it was the same way. You always struggle when you miss the fairways, and you can end up with some tough lies around the green. This one feels slightly easier.”

The conditions were reflected in the scoring, as only a dozen players broke par.

Masters runner-up Chris DiMarco went back to his old irons, hit shots closer to the flag and wound up at 67 with Nick Dougherty of England. Sergio Garcia, Stuart Appleby and Nick O’Hern were at 68.

Mickelson went home to San Diego after winning the PGA Championship on Monday with a birdie on the 72nd hole, spent Tuesday with his family and was still riding high when he showed up at Firestone.

His round was a collection of birdies and bogeys that added to a 69 and more love from the gallery.

“I feel very confident with how I’m playing,” Mickelson said, a past champion at Firestone. “I’m trying to take that momentum and carry it over here to Firestone, and the reason I like playing here so much right after last week is it’s a very similar setup.”

Love referred to this as a “mini major” with the emphasis on putting the ball in the fairway and making putts.

Still, the players were allowed to exhale with the majors over.

The course is tough. More money is at stake this week with a $7.5 million purse. Still, it is only a 72-man field with an odd collection of players from tours around the world. And there is no cut.

“It’s a little bit of a sigh of relief that you’ve got the pressure off a little bit,” Love said. “They’ve named the Presidents Cup or the Ryder Cup team, and you relax a little bit. If you didn’t look at the names of the tournaments – if you looked at the purses – you’d be gearing up for this week.

“It’s a nice tournament to have after a real big one.”

Woods only sees dollar signs and trophies when he gets to Firestone. He won three straight years starting in 1999, and always seems to be in contention on this old-styled course.

Thursday was no exception.

His 7-iron hit the flag on No. 12 and stopped 12 feet away for birdie, and he added two more birdies in the 15-foot range along with a short chip for a tap-in birdie on the par-5 second hole. He also got out of the trees on the sixth and ninth, both times finding a gap in the branches.

His ball was on a shallow root on the ninth, his finishing hole. Instead of hitting sand wedge that requires the club to dig into the ground, he tried to pick the ball clean with a wedge, and it stopped 15 feet right of the cup.

“I didn’t hurt myself, and it came out clean,” he said.

AP-ES-08-18-05 1913EDT

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