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Golf: Leishman leads early at Firestone

Marc Leishman tees off on the eighth hole during the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, on Thursday. Joe Maiorana / USA Today Sports

AKRON, Ohio — Australian Marc Leishman upstaged the game’s biggest games as he charged into a one-shot lead in the opening round of the elite the WGC-    Bridgestone Invitational on     Thursday.

While eight-time winner Tiger Woods launched his title defense with a 2-under-par 68 at a rain-    softened Firestone Country Club, Leishman surged to the top of the leaderboard with a sizzling 64.

Leishman, whose only PGA Tour win came at the 2012 Travelers Championship, mixed eight birdies with two bogeys on the heavily tree-lined layout to finish a stroke in front of American Ryan Moore, South African Charl Schwartzel and England’s Justin Rose.

Italian Francesco Molinari, Americans Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler and Canadian Graham DeLaet opened with 67s in the third World Golf Championships event of the year.

Most eyes, however, were focused on former world No. 1 Woods, who has compiled an astonishing record of success at Firestone and romped to victory last year by a seven shots.

Though still tournament rusty after spending much of this season recovering from back surgery, he was satisfied with the progress shown in his game after carding six birdies, two bogeys and a double at the par-4 ninth.

“I hit a lot of good shots today, I hit a few not so solid but I kind of got it around a little bit,” Woods told Golf Channel after covering the back nine in 2-under 33.

“Every time I dropped a shot, I got it right back the very next hole so bouncing back like that feels nice. It’s just progress. I just need to get reps (repetitions) in.

“Coming (back) off surgery, it takes time. It (his form) has been building and today was a lot better.”

Woods, who missed the cut at last month’s Quicken Loans National and finishing 69th at the British Open 11 days ago in his only two events since his surgery in late March, said his strategy had been very simple in the opening round.

“You’ve just got to keep making birdies out here, keep the ball in play,” he smiled. “It’s soft right now and you can see a lot of guys under par. With the wind cropping up this afternoon, not a lot of guys went low but it certainly was gettable.”

Australian world No. 1 Adam Scott, second-ranked Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, who clinched his third major title at the British Open earlier this month, and Masters winner Bubba Watson opened with matching 69s.

Among those who did not fare well in the first round at Firestone were U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer of Germany, who struggled to a 77, and former British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who carded a 75.

American Johnson takes leave for ‘personal challenges’

Dustin Johnson is taking a leave of absence from golf to seek help for “personal challenges,” the big-hitting American said on Thursday.

Johnson, who finished in a tie for ninth at the British Open earlier this month before missing the cut at the Canadian Open last week, did not say when he plans to return to the tour.

“I will use this time to seek professional help for personal challenges I have faced,” Johnson, an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour who is ranked 16th in the world, said in a statement issued by his management company.

“By committing the time and resources necessary to improve my mental health, physical well-being and emotional foundation, I am confident that I will be better equipped to fulfill my potential and become a consistent champion.”

Johnson, 30, considered one of the top players in the game, stands fourth in the PGA Tour’s FedExCup points list and fifth in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings.

The PGA Tour, in a statement, said: “We have nothing to add to Dustin’s statement, but we wish him well and look forward to his return to the PGA tour in the future.”

3M Championship tees off

Today’s Round 1 pairings for the 3M Championship at TPC Twins Cities in Blaine, Minn., feature a trio of marquee groups in a row off the No. 1 tee.

At noon Brad Faxon tees off with Fred Funk and three-time major champion Vijay Singh. That group will be followed at 12:10 p.m. by Schwab Cup points leader Bernhard Langer, Minnesotan Tom Lehman and defending 3M Champion Tom Pernice Jr. World Golf Hall of Famer Colin Montgomerie joins Jay Haas and 3M Championship record-holder David Frost at 12:20 p.m.

Local players John Harris (11:10 a.m.) and Don Berry (12:30 p.m.) also start off No. 1 tee today. The senior tournament runs through Sunday.