Pro Golf Weekly previews the fourth and final World Golf Championships event of the season in this week’s 2018 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational Primer.
One of pro golf’s most familiar old-school venues, Firestone Country Club’s South Course in Akron, Ohio, gets one more turn in the big-tour spotlight this week with the final go-round for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational before it moves to Memphis in 2019.
The prominence of golf in the minds of sports fans usually tends to slip in direct proportion to the closer that the approach of the start of football season draws, but if a scenario is possible to hold the interest of golf fans through the start of October, what is in store in 2018 over the next two months has the potential to be about as good as it gets.
It all starts in August in Akron, where all 50 of the current top-ranked players in the world will be on hand this week trying to keep Tiger tamed. Not only will Tiger Woods return for the first time since 2014 to an event he has previously won eight times in 14 starts, he’ll have a chance at PGA Tour history with a victory — no one has ever won a single event nine times in their career.
The hurdles standing in the way of that feat, of course, are as formidable as they can get, beginning with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson coming in off his RBC Canadian Open victory last week, where he demonstrated the kind of ball-striking mastery that makes you wonder, “How does this guy ever lose?” Any kind of scenario for Sunday that involves both DJ and Tiger in contention would almost instantly gain historic status in Tour lore.
But wait, there’s more.
All of this week’s assemblage of talent will be carpooling it to St. Louis after Sunday, in preparation for the fourth and final major championship of 2018, the 100th anniversary playing of the PGA Championship next week at Bellerive Country Club. The regular season wraps with the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., beginning Aug. 16, and then comes three weeks of the big purses and mass eliminations of the first three FedEx Cup playoff events.
After a catch-your-breath bye week in mid-September, the 30 remaining top players will then play for the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup with its $10 million bonus in Atlanta, followed immediately by an event where any carpooling will be broken down on a them-vs.-us basis, when the Ryder Cup is contested outside of Paris from Sept. 28-30.
If that’s not enough to keep late-season golf relevant for you, sorry. There’s not much more the powers-that-be can cook up than that.
The story that will be history’s headline for the year in golf, 2018 edition, feels like it is yet to be completed, and that someone somewhere in these next two months will do something so dramatic that they’ll claim that distinction. It all starts in Akron this weekend, and like the first leg of the Triple Crown, it will be very interesting to see who climbs to the front of the pack and how long they can run in that position.
2018 WGC-BRIDGESTONE INVITATIONAL
Tournament: WGC-Bridgestone Invitational
Dates: Aug. 2-5, 2018
Where: Akron, Ohio
Course: Firestone Country Club (South Course)
Distance: Par 70, 7,400 yards
Architect: Bert Way (1929), Robert Trent Jones (1960)
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, no cut
Winning Share: $1,700,000
Defending Champion: Hideki Matsuyama
Marquee Players: Matsuyama, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Francesco Molinari, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Reed, Alex Noren, Bubba Watson, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, Webb Simpson, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson
TV AND ONLINE
Round 1: Thu 1:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Round 2: Fri 1:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Round 3: Sat 12-1:45 pm (GOLF), 2-6:00 pm (CBS)
Round 4: Sun 12-1:45 pm (GOLF), 2-6:00 pm (CBS)
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Sadly, it’s the “History” category where we will find the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational after this week wraps up. A major shakeup in the traditional tour scheduling of the last decade-plus in 2019 has the final WGC event of the season moving from Akron to Memphis, where it will be contested at the end of July in the week after the 2019 Open Championship.
Akron’s consolation prize isn’t all bad — Firestone Country Club’s South Course will be the new permanent home beginning in 2019 of the Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS Championship, one of five majors on the Champions Tour.
Considering long ago, Arnold Palmer tagged the course with the nickname of “The Monster” due to its difficulty and length, particularly the 667-yard par-5 16th hole guarded by a pond in front of the green, it may feel like a golf version of “The Walking Dead” for the Champions Tour players to see Firestone South rise once again onto their future schedules.
As for the WGC-Bridgestone, it began in 1999 as part of the new World Golf Championships collection. Bridgestone has been the title sponsor, but for years this tournament was basically the Tiger Woods Invitational.
Tiger won the 1999 inaugural event by one-stroke over Phil Mickelson, obliterated the field by 11 strokes the very next year, and made it three-for-three in 2001. Tiger would also go on to win the tournament in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2013.
Besides Woods, notable champions include Vijay Singh, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.
Prior to the launch of the WGC-Bridgestone, Firestone Country Club hosted the prestigious “World Series of Golf” from 1976 to 1998, an elite event that, for a time, gave a 10-year Tour exemption to the winner.
The course itself was established in 1929 by Firestone founder Harvey Firestone as a park for his employees. It was later redesigned by the legendary Robert Trent Jones in 1960 so it could host the PGA Championship, which it has done three times.
2017: Hideki Matsuyama (-16)
2016: Dustin Johnson (-6)
2015: Shane Lowry (-11)
2014: Rory McIlroy (-15)
2013: Tiger Woods (-15)
2012: Keegan Bradley (-13)
2011: Adam Scott (-17)
259 (-21) Tiger Woods (2000)
8 – Tiger Woods (1999-2001, 2005-07, 2009, 2013)
Hideki Matsuyama fired a course-record 9-under 61 in the final round at Firestone Country Club to win the 2017 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Matsuyama shot the finest final round in the history of the World Golf Championships (WGC): an impeccable bogey-free 9-under 61, which led to a landslide five-shot victory at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
The 61 tied the all-time record at Firestone and set the WGC final round record by an unbelievable three strokes. The leaderboard was tight and star-studded early, but Matsuyama, who started the day two-strokes behind Zach Johnson and Thomas Pieters, broke out early.
And by hitting green after green, and holing putt after putt, Matsuyama made easy work of one of the best fields of the season.
It was his fifth career victory, and third of the 2017 season for Matsuyama, who has not won since last year’s Akron victory.
FINAL TOP 10
1. Hideki Matsuyama -16
2. Zach Johnson -11
3. Charley Hoffman -10
4. Thomas Pieters -8
5. Paul Casey -7
5. Rory McIlroy -7
5. Russell Knox -7
5. Adam Hadwin -7
9. Rickie Fowler -6
10. Thorbjorn Olesen -5
10. Hudson Swafford -5
10. Scott Hend -5
FIVE STORYLINES AT FIRESTONE
1. TIGER WOODS IN THE FIELD
Pro Golf Weekly is not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but if Jordan Spieth was not 100% class and a paragon of golf etiquette, we might think he had been corrupted at the Open Championship.
With a bogey on the 17th hole at Carnoustie, which occurred after he had essentially played himself out of an event that could have been his fourth career major victory, a ripple effect transpired that got Tiger Woods into the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by the skin of his teeth, and probably just increased TV viewership of the event 60-fold.
2. WHO CAN STOP MOLINARI?
With Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Dustin Johnson all being placed in the same group this week, Champion Golfer of the Year Francesco Molinari is unlikely to get excessive attention on Thursday and Friday, but he is probably the golfer the field should be most concerned about.
3. HIDEKI DEFENDS
In last week’s storylines, we expressed how shocking it was that defending Open Champion Jordan Spieth had not won since the victory he was defending. That may go double for Hideki Matsuyama, this week’s defending champion at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Matsuyama’s scorching Sunday 9-under 61 to blow away the field at Firestone one year ago was very possibly the greatest round in WGC history.
Surprisingly, he has not won again since. In fact, he has not as much as seriously contended in a tournament since finishing T5 at last year’s PGA Championship, where he got off to a hot start and tripped on the weekend.
4. SPIETH’S FIRST POST-OPEN START
Speaking of Spieth, the three-time major winner will be making his first post-Open Championship start this week at the WGC-Bridgestone. At Carnoustie, the 25-year-old former World No. 1 and former PGA Tour Player of the Year, appeared to have busted from a puzzling slump when took a 54-hole co-lead in the season’s third major, a major where he was the defending champion.
Unfortunately for Spieth and his many, many fans, Sunday at The Open was not the shotmaking showcase of the previous year, but instead was a dismal display. Spieth failed to produce a single birdie in a 4-over 76 that dropped him into 9th place.
5. RYDER CUP HOME STRETCH
In just under two months, the 2018 Ryder Cup will tee off at Le Golf National in Paris, France. There are hundreds of players on Tour who would kill to be a part of that 12-man team, but opportunities to represent Team America are running out.
This week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will be the penultimate event of the year awarding Ryder Cup points. Those who still have more work to make up upon leaving Akron will need to impress at next week’s PGA Championship. At that point, the top 8 in the American Ryder Cup standings will automatically be named to the team.
Has there been rhyme or reason to the 2018 season? Not particularly. Lots of guys have had their moments, but few have sustained excellence, which is why handicapping this week’s WGC-Bridgestone field is fairly perilous.
As mentioned, every member currently in the top 50 of the world rankings will be playing in Akron in what is a small field overall — just 73 players in all, with no cut for the weekend.
Maybe, just maybe, Dustin Johnson’s win last week at the RBC Canadian Open was an announcement by the world’s No. 1 player that he is geared up for a big finish. He did not traditionally have a strong record in the WGC-Bridgestone, but then 2016 arrived and he won the title. That, however, is his only top 10 in eight previous starts.
DJ has now been the top-ranked player in the world for 73 of the last 75 weeks, and his win last week was his third of the season, matching Bubba Watson as the Tour leader for wins this year. With the exception of a missed cut at the Open Championship two weeks ago, he hasn’t had a finish outside the top 20 in any event since before The Masters. A win this week or next week at the PGA would go a long way towards putting him in position for Player of the Year honors.
Tiger Woods’ return to health this year is a story almost every golf fan is familiar with. He shocked the golf world with a pair of top five finishes in March, and has four top 10s in all, including his most recent outing, a tie for sixth at the Open Championship in an event where he briefly held the lead on the weekend. It was just enough to get him back into the world top 50 and give him a spot in this week’s field.
Just behind his major victories, his performances in the WGC-Bridgestone will be one of the next things people talk about when they discuss Tiger’s legend. From 1999-2009, he played in this event nine times and took home seven titles. The two years he didn’t win, he finished tied for fourth and tied for second. Just let that sink in for a minute.
Since then, he’s battled health and personal issues, leading to finishes outside the top 30 in both 2010 and ’11, a bounce back to a tie for eighth in 2012 and then gutting out a win in 2013. He made one more start in 2014, before having to withdraw with injury issues on the final day.
Can he reconnect with the winning Firestone form that made him as dominant at any single event as any player in golf history through that 2009 season? If he can, will it be enough against a field of rising young talents that may be deeper than any previous generation golf has seen? Those will be questions to keep in mind with Tiger for this week.
Another player a lot of people like this week who has historically thrived at Firestone is Rory McIlroy. McIlroy is coming in off a tie for runner-up honors at the Open Championship, and he’s won the WGC-Bridgestone before, taking home the 2014 title. Last year, he placed fifth in Akron, and he probably has the second most impressive resume overall in this event behind Tiger — he’s played the WGC-Bridgestone seven times, and in five of those starts he put up a top 10 finish.
And then, how do you measure the man who beat McIlroy at the Open to become the “Champion Golfer of the Year”? Francesco Molinari has hit one of those streaks in golf where a player suddenly finds something that demystifies the game and makes it look simple. Molinari, at age 35, has rocketed up to become the No. 6 player in the world, and his commitment to playing much of his golf on the PGA Tour has him at seventh in the FedEx Cup standings.
Molinari has made six starts since the end of May, and has finished either first or second in five of them. The only Italian to ever win a major is a phenomenon at this point, and any additional victory in the next two months could easily make him the Tour’s Player of the Year.
Justin Rose is now officially the world’s No. 2 golfer, rising a spot on the strength of his tie for second at the Open Championship. He made some serious noise in the 2016 part of the 2016-17 season when he came from eight shots back to beat Dustin Johnson and claim the first WGC title of the year, the HSBC Champions event last October. The only hesitancy is a so-so record in this event, with 12 appearances producing four top-five finishes, the best of which was a tie for second in his first trip to Akron in 2007.
So many others could walk away with this week’s title and no one would call it an upset. We haven’t even had an opportunity to invoke the names of the winners of the first two majors of the year, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka. (Koepka, in particular, looks interesting. He’s only played this event twice before, but his career scoring average of 69.00 across his eight rounds is fourth-best in tournament history.)
If you appreciate good golf, stay close to your TV this week. The field is too good for anyone to back into this title. As a dress rehearsal for next week’s PGA, if you care to view it that way, this could be one last great go-round on one of the most familiar courses to golf fans and players alike.
THE FIELD: ODDS
WGC Bridgestone Invitational | Firestone CC (Akron, Ohio) | Aug 2-5, 2018
Credits: PGA Tour Media, Getty Images