People are most familiar with Akron, Ohio for one of two reasons: (1) It’s the hometown of NBA Superstar LeBron James, and (2) it is where George Costanza frantically went to deliver his iconic “jerk store” line.
This week, Akron takes center stage in the golf world as the host of the 17th annual edition of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at historic Firestone Country Club. The atmosphere will likely be jovial as the tournament is being played in front of a jubilant northeast Ohio crowd that is still in non-stop party mode after the Cleveland Cavaliers brought the first championship to the region in 52 years just over one week ago.
Like all World Golf Championship (WGC) events, the field is very strong. Golf fans will get to see most of the best golfers in the world at this tournament, but a scheduling issue is keeping the best European players away. It’s a conflict that has the PGA believing that the jerk store called, and said they’re running out of the European Tour.
The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational has been held at Firestone since the inception of the World Golf Championships in 1999. Tiger Woods won the inaugural event, in addition to the next two, and later on, five more. With eight WGC-Bridgestone wins total, Tiger accounts for an incredible 50% of the tournament wins. Interestingly enough, even if Tiger were healthy enough to play this weekend, he would not qualify to make the field.
Long before it became, more of less, the Tiger Woods Open, Firestone hosted an annual elite field tournament. It was known as the “World Series of Golf”. From 1962-1976, it was a 4-man, 36-hole tournament comprised of the winners of that season’s major championship winners. Starting in 1976, it became a 20-man, 72-hole tournament with a large (for that time) purse and awarded a 10-year PGA exemption to the winner. Over the years, the tournament gradually expanded it’s field, and now it typically invites about 75 players.
As a WGC event, the Bridgestone has no cut. The man who finished in last place in the 2015 edition, Troy Merritt, shot 82-75-70-75 (77th place) and still left with a check for $40,750.
Name: Firestone Country Club (South)
Where: Akron, OH
Distance: 7400 yards
Architect: Firestone was founded in 1929 and is a Bert Way design, later being redesigned by Robert Trent Jones in 1960.
Winning Share: $1,620,000
FedEx Cup Points: 550 (50 more than most tournaments, 50 less than a major)
Rounds 1-2: 1:30-6:30PM (Golf Channel)
Rounds 3-4: 12-1:30PM (Golf Channel); 2-6:00PM (CBS Sports)
The defending champion is Ireland’s Shane Lowry, who shot a final round 66 to overtake 54-hole leader Jim Furyk and win by two strokes over Bubba Watson. One of the most memorable shots in Bridgestone history, Lowry secured his victory when he took out a sand wedge on the 72nd hole and hit a high arching shot over the trees to 11 feet from the hole. Lowry went on to make birdie and win his first PGA Tour event.
2014: Rory McIlroy
2013: Tiger Woods
2012: Keegan Bradley
2011: Adam Scott
2010: Hunter Mahan
RECORDS (WGC years only)
Lowest final score: Tiger Woods shot a vintage Tiger round of 259 (21-under) in his 2000 beat down. He won by 11 strokes over Justin Leonard and Phillip Price. That 259 is four strokes better than the second best winning score, Adam Scott’s 263 in 2011.
Lowest round: 61, 2 times (Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia)
1. Scheduling Controversy
It is not unusual for there to be animosity between the U.S. and Europe in Ryder Cup years, but this one goes a little deeper. If it feels like the WGC-Bridgestone usually happens later in the year, that is because it does. To accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics, the PGA moved the tournament back a month. To the dismay of the European Tour, the PGA scheduled it for the same weekend as the 100th edition of the Euro Tour’s Alstom Open de France (French Open). Enraged, the European Tour made a series of moves that essentially precluded their best golfers from playing in the WGC-Bridgestone.
First, the European Tour refused to sanction the event. That means that the 2016 WGC-Bridgestone will not count as a European Tour event. Money that would have been earned there will not count towards the European Tour Money list. In addition, the European Tour points that would have been earned will not count towards the Race to Dubai standings, and world rankings points that would have been earned will not count towards Ryder Cup Points.
Second, the European Tour significantly increased the benefits of playing in the French Open. The purse was increased by £500,000. The European Tour also decided to consider it two events for the purposes of their membership requirements, and awarded the event a lot more points towards both the Ryder Cup Points List and the European Points List.
Those measures are keeping many of the best European golfers in France this weekend. Among them (world ranking in parenthesis) include:
Rory McIlroy (4) – McIlroy was the 2014 Bridgestone Winner.
Danny Willett (9) – Willett won the 2016 Masters.
Sergio Garcia (11) – Sergio won the PGA’s Byron Nelson Classic and was in contention at the U.S. Open. He also has a tremendous history at Firestone, including a solo-second in 2014.
Chris Wood (23) – Wood, the winner of the European Tour’s flagship event is having a breakthrough year on that tour.
Lee Westwood (35) – A regular on major championship leaderboards, Westwood has played in the Sunday group with the winner of both 2016 majors.
Matthew Fitzpatrick, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, and Andy Sullivan will also be in France instead of Ohio. World #7 Henrik Stenson elected to take the week off entirely.
2. Lowry Defends
Shane Lowry vacillated on the decision for a while, but ultimately decided that he would rather defend his 2015 victory at Firestone than chase Ryder Cup Points in France. This is Lowry’s first PGA event since he squandered a four-stroke 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open. Much has been said about Jordan Spieth’s mental state since his collapse at The Masters; it will be interesting to see how Lowry responds in comparison.
3. DJ’s First Event as a Major Champion
Despite all of his success, Dustin Johnson has spent years holding the stigma of never winning a major. His triumph at Oakmont two weeks ago finally changed the conversation. Finally losing that monkey off his back has to be a prodigious mental advantage for the new world #3. How high can DJ soar now?
4. Jason Day Sizzling
Tiger Woods might not be in the field this year, which is a whole other story in itself, but world #1 Jason Day is in the midst of the best stretches of golf the PGA Tour has seen since Tiger was in his prime. Day dominated the last WGC Event, the WGC-Match Play Championship back in March. Overall, he was won seven of his last 19 events, with most of those coming in tournaments with elite fields such as the 2015 PGA Championship, The Players, The Barclays, and the BMW Championship. He was relevant at the U.S. Open two weeks ago, despite an uncharacteristically poor first round that had him at +6 at one point. He is the favorite every time he tees it up, and this week is no different.
OTHER NOTABLES IN THE FIELD
Spieth, the world’s #2 ranked golfer, did win the Dean & Deluca Invitational in May, but outside of that, he has looked surprisingly mortal since his shocking back-nine collapse at The Masters. He missed the cut at The Players, finished T57 at The Memorial, and was a non-story at The U.S. Open, making the cut, but finishing 9-over, good for a T37. Still, he has two wins on the year, five top-10s, and has a well-earned reputation as a big-event golfer.
Mickelson was on the long list of U.S. Open duds, missing the cut, but he is still having a resurgent season with top-5 finishes in 33% of his events (5 of 15). Lately, it has been all-or-nothing for the 46-year-old, and we don’t know how many quality years he has left.
Fowler, the extremely popular world #7 has been badly struggling as of late, following up three consecutive missed cuts (The Players, The Memorial, and the U.S. Open) with a mediocre T44 at the Quicken Loans National, where he played himself out of contention on the weekend.
Rose, who recently missed the BMW PGA Championship with a back injury, is possibly the best European Tour player who decided to stay state-side this week. He has finished in the top-four the past two WGC-Bridgestones.
Billy Hurley III
Hurley III rose to relevancy on the PGA Tour with an inspiring win at the Quicken Loans National. Has he found the game to compete anywhere, or was last weekend just a matter of him being exceptionally comfortable at a local course? He made a lot of fans last weekend. Can he ride all the newfound crowd support to another quality result?