Akron, Ohio might have birthed two of the world’s biggest superstar athletes in transcendent NBA small forward LeBron James and record-smashing point guard Stephen Curry, but this week, the Rubber Capital of the World is all about golf.
The 19th World Golf Championships (WGC) – Bridgestone Invitational tees off this week at Firestone Country Club, a course widely recognized as one of America’s best.
The WGC-Bridgestone provides a formidable challenge as the lead-in to the following week’s PGA Championship, the final major of the season.
Of the 77 first-class golfers set to tee off in Akron, there is little doubt of who the man to watch is. Jordan Spieth, who is every bit the golf superstar that LeBron and Steph Curry are in the basketball world, will be playing his first tournament since his thrilling triumph at The Open Championship just two weeks ago.
Spieth’s attempt to win the PGA Championship and become the youngest in PGA Tour history to win the Career Grand Slam will take center stage in a week, but Spieth must first stare down an elite and exclusive field in Northeast Ohio. Any momentum he can pick up will be critical.
The WGC-Bridgestone began in 1999 as part of the new World Golf Championships collection. Bridgestone is 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.
That makes eight Tiger victories in just 18 tournaments. Besides Woods, notable champions include Vijay Singh, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, and Dustin Johnson.
Prior to 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.
Name: Firestone Country Club (South)
Where: Akron, OH
Distance: 7400 yards, par 70
Architect: Bert Way (1929), Robert Trent Jones (1960)
Winning Share: $1,755,000
FedEx Cup Points: 550
The defending champion of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is Dustin Johnson. In his first tournament after his breakthrough victory at the 2016 U.S. Open, Johnson looked like someone who was fresh off a vacation (he had been in The Bahamas celebrating his first major championship) through the first two rounds, posting a mediocre 69-73 start, but once the weekend hit, there may as well have been nobody else in the field.
A blistering 66-66 in the final two rounds allowed Johnson to catch the (at the time) red-hot Jason Day, and vault him to the top of the leaderboard.
At -6 for the week, Johnson won by a single stroke over Scott Piercy, who was also one of the co-runner ups to Johnson at the U.S. Open.
Other Recent Champions
2015: Shane Lowry
2014: Rory McIlroy
2013: Tiger Woods
2012: Keegan Bradley
2011: Adam Scott
Lowest Final Score: 259 (-21) by Tiger Woods in his 2000 11-stroke romp.
(That 259 is an incredible four strokes better than the second-best winning score in tournament history.)
Low Round: 61 (Jose Maria Olazabal, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia)
Round 1: 1:30-6:30 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 1:30-6:30 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 12:00-1:30 PM (Golf Channel); 2:00-6:00 PM (CBS)
Round 4: 12:00-1:30 PM (Golf Channel); 2:00-6:00 PM (CBS)
Storyline 1: The Open Champion Back At It
The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational might boast an unbelievable field, highlighted by the entire top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), but many viewers will be keeping an eye on Akron for one reason: Jordan Spieth.
This tournament will be the newly-minted Open Champion’s first since taking down an elite field at Royal Birkdale two weeks ago. It will also be the 24-year-old’s last competitive action before he attempts to become the youngest ever to win the Career Grand Slam, when he tees it up at the PGA Championship.
Spieth will also be attempting to win his third straight tournament, as he also won the Travelers Championship, his last start before going wire-to-wire in Southport, England.
Fans are excited to see a new extra-confident Spieth. Although the greatness of the world No. 2 has been widely recognized for several years now, his profile reached new heights after the landmark Open Championship win.
Spieth had not won a major since taking the first two in 2015 (The Masters and The U.S. Open), and his back nine meltdown at the 2016 Masters led to questions about the state of his mental game, questions that persisted over his next five major starts, as he did not contend in any of them.
Those questions nearly got much, much larger. His putter went shaky during round 4 of his Travelers win, a tournament he took in a playoff over Daniel Berger, and then at The Open, Spieth squandered a 54-hole three-shot lead, dropping very briefly into second place after a nightmare 13th hole where he did extremely well just to escape with a bogey.
Spieth himself admitted that the ’16 Masters crept into the periphery of his mind as the hole, and the circus it created, progressed. Had he continued the implosion, public doubts and criticism about his psyche would be ubiquitous.
However, as we know, that implosion did not continue, as Spieth then put together one of the greatest five-hole stretches in professional golf history, and ended up winning The Open by three strokes, the same advantage he began that day with.
Now, the narrative has gone from “What’s wrong with Spieth?” to discussions on how his legacy already stacks up against the all-time greats. His confidence may be as high as it ever has been, and it will be undeniably exciting to see how that carries over into this week’s WGC event.
If he wins, he will be heading into the PGA Championship on a three-tournament victory streak. The juicy storylines and media attention would reach a level we have not seen since Tiger’s prime.
Spieth finished T3 at last year’s WGC-Bridgestone, shooting a final round 67 to finish three strokes behind Dustin Johnson. He was also T10 at the 2015 edition, saving his best round for Sunday.
Storyline 2: What About the Defending Champ?
If Jordan Spieth is able to chase his Open Championship victory with a WGC-Bridgestone title, he will be following in the footsteps of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who captured the 2016 Bridgestone in his first start after winning the U.S. Open (the WGC-Bridgestone was moved up on the schedule to accommodate golf’s return to The Olympics).
Johnson may be the only golfer in the world ranked higher than Spieth, but the current state of his game is a big question mark. Johnson was nothing short of dominant earlier in the season, at one point winning three consecutive tournaments, including two WGC events: the Mexico Championship and the Dell Technologies Match Play.
Since his freak off-course back injury on Masters eve, though, which caused him to withdraw from the year’s first major, nobody really knows where his game is.
Johnson did finish runner up at the Wells Fargo Championship in his first event back from the injury that he said this week still bothers him, but was underwhelming in his next two starts, a T12 and a T13, and then missed his next two cuts after that, with latter of those coming in his U.S. Open defense.
In two events he has entered since the U.S. Open, the questions about his game were not answered. At the Open Championship, he dazzled the crowd with a nearly flawless third round 64, but followed that up with a field-worst 77 on Sunday to drop to T54.
Johnson played in last week’s RBC Canadian Open, and was in contention after three rounds, but while a final round 5-under 67 looks good on paper, he failed to capitalize on his chances against a weak field, not doing much of anything on Sunday until it was too late to challenge the lead.
That all being said, Johnson has consistently brought his ‘A’ game to WGC events, as his five victories are the second most all-time (behind Tiger’s 18 WGC wins, and no, that is not a typo), and if he wins in Akron, he would become the first-ever to win three in one season.
DJ would love to validate his season with a second career major championship, and it would be huge for his confidence if he could get back in the winner’s circle the week prior.
Storyline 3: Europe’s Return to Firestone
Last year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational created a contentious situation between the PGA Tour and the European Tour. The tournament had been moved back from its regular position on the season schedule to accommodate The Olympics, but the new date caused a conflict in Europe.
The 100th edition of the French Open was scheduled for the same week, and to try to get their best players to play in France instead of northeast Ohio, the European Tour refused to co-sanction the WGC-Bridgestone, meaning that it would not count as an official European Tour event like it always has, and results in Akron would not count towards the European Tour money list or the year-long Race to Dubai.
They even increased the French Open purse and declared that the event would count as two events for European Tour membership purposes. As a result, a number of Europe’s better players were not at Firestone. Their absence of those players was palpable.
Fortunately, the controversy is not going to spill over into the 2017 WGC-Bridgestone, as the tournament, again, will be considered an official European Tour event. In regards to those European regulars, here are the ones to watch out for most:
It has been a difficult year for the 2016 FedEx Cup Champion, as a rib injury sidelined him for a significant time, and he has struggled to find his best form since coming back.
The four-time major champion missed the cut in the two European Tour events he entered before The Open Championship further adding to the uncertainty surrounding his game.
McIlroy had an up-and-down week at Royal Birkdale, playing his first six holes in +5, but rebounded tremendously from there to finish T4, although he was never really in contention.
The 2016 Open Champion sidestepped the WGC-Bridgestone controversy altogether by not playing in neither Akron nor France. He had shockingly missed five of his previous six PGA cuts coming into his Open defense, but mostly played well in England, posting a T11 largely off the strength of a Saturday 65.
The world No. 5 was underwhelming at Royal Birkdale in a T37 effort, but anything he does at this point in 2017 is gravy, as his major breakthrough at Augusta has removed any pressure he would otherwise be feeling.
The 35-year-old from Sweden is ranked No. 9 in the world, largely off his European Tour results, but looks close to breaking through in a PGA Tour event, with top 10 finishes at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and THE PLAYERS Championship.
This will be Noren’s first start since a T6 result at The Open Championship, and will also be his Firestone debut.
The Southport, England native was considered a favorite going into The Open Championship, as he was playing in his hometown, but he took himself out of the mix after an opening-round 76.
Fleetwood did well to scramble and post at T27, but it was considered a disappointment for the man who finished fourth at the U.S. Open. This will be the first Bridgestone Invitational for the man who was runner-up at the year’s first WGC event, the Mexico Championship.
Other Notables in the Field
Another week, another tournament debut for the 22-year-old from Spain, but with a win and seven top 10s in 17 PGA Tour events, that has not mattered much for Rahm.
In his last non-major start, he annihilated the field at the European Tour’s DDF Irish Open, winning by a six-stroke margin.
Rahm followed that up with a surprisingly ordinary week at The Open Championship, nearly missing the cut after a 4-over second round with two stretches of three or more consecutive bogeys, but played the other three rounds in a respectable 1-under par.
The Open Championship runner-up was underwhelming in a T32 performance at last week’s RBC Canadian Open, but that kind of result is not terribly surprising given the physical and emotional toll that Royale Birkdale took on him.
Kuchar finished T3 at last year’s WGC-Bridgestone highlighted by a final round 66.
For how incredibly prepared he sounded for Royal Birkdale, Phil was shockingly bad in missing the cut at The Open Championship, with 11 bogeys and a triple over 36 holes. It is uncertain how much, if any, the loss of Jim ‘Bones’ MacKay as his caddy had on the awful result, but he will be looking to rebound in Akron before he and his brother take on their second major together at the PGA Championship.
Mickelson has played in every WGC-Bridgestone since its inception, but a T4 in 2008 is his only top 10 in the event in his last 14 tries, which is surprising given that he had finished in the top 10 in each of his first four WGC-Bridgestone attempts, including a runner-up to Tiger Woods in the inaugural 1999 event.
Day was the 54-hole leader at last year’s event, and held that lead through 14 holes on Sunday, but collapsed over the final four with a bogey, double-bogey, par, bogey finish that dropped him into a tie for third.
Day was fortunate to make the weekend at Royal Birkdale after playing his last three holes on Friday in 5-over, but was solid in England otherwise in a T27 effort.
The 27-year-old U.S. Open winner had not played a single tournament between his major breakthrough and his Open Championship attempt, but was much better than expected at Royal Birkdale, as he sat in third place after each of the first three rounds before a final-round 71 dropped him into a tie for sixth.
Koepka also finished T6 at the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone, his first attempt at Firestone. In last year’s edition, he withdrew on the back nine in round one, still collecting a cool $50,000 in the process.