By Dave Shedloski
It’s the last roundup for the PGA TOUR — at least for now — at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, when the $10 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational is held for a final time this week on the South Course.
Firestone has hosted a PGA TOUR event every year but one since 1954. That was in 2002 when the WGC event was held at Sahalee Golf Club near Seattle. Even then, though, the South Course staged an event, the Senior PGA Championship. Next year, the PGA TOUR Champions brings the Senior Players Championship to Akron, so the golf tradition will go on.
Nevertheless, it’s an end of an era, so it’s time to savor this farewell event of sorts with what should be a memorable week on the imposing 7,400-yard, par-70 South Course.
A field of 73 players, golf’s best and brightest, representing 19 countries will be on hand to vie for the Gary Player Cup. Among them is one name in particular who will draw intense scrutiny. Not that Tiger Woods hasn’t encountered that wherever he tees it up, especially during this, his comeback season, but interest will be even more ramped up because of Woods’ record at Firestone. He’s won there eight times, the last in 2013, which happens to represent the last of his 79 TOUR titles. Adding to the intrigue of his inclusion in the field — by the skin of his teeth when he finished T-6 at the Open Championship at Carnoustie to move to 50th in the Official World Golf Ranking –- is that Woods hasn’t played at Firestone since 2014, nor has he been in a WGC event since then.
Woods isn’t the only former winner in the field. Hideki Matsuyama is the defending champion after a five-shot victory in which he fired a final-round 61. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off his third win of the year at the RBC Canadian Open, won there in 2016. Rory McIlroy (2014) and Adam Scott (2011) also return. On the other side of the coin, seven players make their debut at Firestone, including Tony Finau, who has been a strong player in the majors this year.
CBS Sports on-course reporter Dottie Pepper offers her views on some key storylines.
He’s No. 50 in the world, but No. 1 on the radar screen this week. What should we look for from Tiger Woods in his return to Firestone?
Based on how well he drove the ball at the Open Championship, he could do really well. And Firestone is not really that long anymore, based on how far the golf ball flies. He could get around with some 3-woods, and it becomes more of a golf course he could manage off the tee. It’s not about super difficult second shots, and we see how good he still is with his irons.
There’s a thought out there that Tiger gets too much attention given his world ranking and such. TV ratings seem to justify the focus. Wouldn’t you agree that he is even more compelling this year because of his comeback from back surgery?
What was he at the start of the year, 696 in the world? And if you’re now in the WGC event at Akron, you’re a story. He’s the most compelling story there. It’s hard to not pay attention to what he’s done, especially considering the back injury, the surgeries, and then there he was last week leading the Open Championship for a while. Who has made a bigger move this year in golf? He’s always someone to follow, but this year he’s been even more compelling. He’s justified all the coverage he has received.
Tiger is the last repeat winner of this event. Can Hideki Matsuyama, who hasn’t won this year and hasn’t had a top-10 since January at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, possibly have a chance to join him?
I don’t know that his wrist injury is completely healed. He hasn’t really done anything all year. You can draw a little bit of a comparison to Jordan Spieth. Neither of them won early, which can start to wear on you. I think that’s where both of them have been lately, and I can see where they might be pressing, because they are used to winning. Maybe this is a week Hideki gets back on track.
>>MORE: Golf Expert Interviews
Firestone South is a hard course, famously known as “The Monster,” but players have a lot of respect for it. Why is that?
It’s an old-fashioned golf course. It’s just basic championship golf, classic American golf architecture. It’s power golf, but you have to put it in play and make sure you’re in the proper spots. It rewards good golf shots. The greens are always fast. You can play hockey from some points on those greens, so you have to be careful. It’s a complete test of golf with no tricks.
This will be the last year Firestone is the warmup event for the PGA Championship. How does it match up with what awaits the players at Bellerive Country Club for the 100th PGA Championship?
Firestone is great preparation for Bellerive, which is the same sort of golf course, though the fairways are zoysia, not bent grass. Pretty well-defined corridors, tough greens. Players have to drive it well. One leads into the other very nicely.
Favorites and dark horses?
Well, for favorites, I’ll take Dustin Johnson for obvious reasons. And because of his form and the way he drives the golf ball, Francesco Molinari too. Dark horses … maybe Jason Day, for starters. He had a run early and has gone quiet, so maybe he’s due. Sergio Garcia has struggled of late, but he does play Firestone well. Shot 61 there and is a great ball striker. Xander Schauffele certainly deserves a look. He’s gaining confidence. Louis Oosthuizen just has to putt okay because he hits it so well.
Journalist and author David Shedloski of Columbus, Ohio, has been covering golf since 1986, first as a daily newspaper reporter and later as a freelance writer for various magazines and Internet outlets. A winner of 23 national writing awards, including 20 for golf coverage, Shedloski is currently a contributing writer for Golf World and GolfDigest.com and serves as editorial director for The Memorial, the official magazine of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. He is the author of five books and has contributed to three others, including the second edition of “Golf For Dummies,” with Gary McCord. His last book was a collaboration with Arnold Palmer for his final autobiography, “A Life Well Played,” published in 2016. He’s a fan of all Cleveland professional sports teams, the poor fellow.