It’s the last stop before the final major (PGA Championship) of the season, the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Tiger Woods won here last year earning him his eighth career victory at this particular tournament. This is a course he knows very well. Tiger will be looking to put behind him his recent lacklustre performance at The Open and try to make his way up the FedEx Cup rankings and also into the automatic points position for the Ryder Cup team.
This weekend’s tournament will be Tiger’s third since returning from back surgery. His first was at the end of June at the Quicken Loans National where he didn’t make the weekend cut. The second was his 69th placed finish at Hoylake just two weeks ago. Woods knows he needs to raise his game if he wants to be in contention for the big prize at the end of the season, the FedEx Cup. He has also stated his intentions to be part of Team USA at the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles this September. However, Captain Tom Watson has stated that his game will need to improve dramatically if he is even to be considered as a captain’s pick.
You can never count out Tiger though. He has dominated here in the past. When he won the tournament back in 2000, Woods leveled Jose Maria Olazabal’s course record of 61. He also broke Olazabal’s tournament record, marking a score of 259 (-21) over the four rounds. To say Tiger has fond memories of this course is arguably an understatement. A positive mental attitude can help a player a long way, especially with such a narrow course like that at Firestone. It is set up nicely as a warm up for Tiger to go for victory and psych himself up to win that elusive 15th major at Valhalla next week.
In his path to victory stands the contender to his golfing throne, Rory McIlroy. Fresh off his victory a fortnight ago at The Open, the Holywood native is looking to build on that victory and put himself in the frame to collect his second major this year (his career fourth) next week. A win at Firestone will set McIlroy up nicely for him to regain the major he won back in 2012 at Kiawah.
McIlroy put a poor year behind him in May when he won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, his first tournament win since 2012. Since then he has settled into his Nike clubs and has dropped a certain Danish tennis player from his side (two additions in his life which were cited by some as the cause of his substandard displays during 2013 and early 2014). His victory at The Open returned the discussion of him being a young golfer with huge potential and a bright future in the game and not of his poor game and missed opportunities.
The heavy hitter will have to look for accuracy this weekend rather than his power if he plans to keep his shots on the green. His greens in regulation have been 67.78% so far this season on the PGA Tour. His driving distance has been an average of 307.5 yards (third highest on the tour) and his accuracy 59.64% (125th on the tour). It is a mixed bag but with the form Rory has been in, it would be hard not to see him at the top of the leaderboard come Sunday.
A name that may be somewhat of a dark horse to take home the win on Sunday evening is that of Matt Kuchar. A man who is under that list of great players to never win a major, the fourteen-year veteran is hitting that prime age to finally get his hands on a cherished major. He has had a solid season so far with nine top tens in eighteen events. He has a single win this season, the RBC Heritage back in April. His performances at the majors this year have been good with a tied 5th at The Masters and a 12th place finish at the U.S. Open with a poor tied 54th at The Open.
Still “Kuch” (as he is affectionately known as on the tour), can look at his stats for this season with a smile. Driving accuracy at 67.65% and a putting average of .536 shows his game could be well suited to this course. The only aspect of his game that diminishes his chances is his driving distance (281.9 yards) and playing alongside McIlroy and his long distance driving, may dishearten him. He has two top 10 finishes at Firestone in the last four years. A good four rounds this weekend and he could be fighting for the top spot.
Rickie Fowler will be another name to keep an eye on this weekend. The 25 year old has had a varied season between low finishes and not even making the cut but has produced on the big stage. He tied for 5th at The Masters and tied for 2nd at both the U.S. Open and The Open. It will be intriguing to see how the young golfer goes into this tournament, head held high after two impressive performances in succession or deflated after getting so close to the prize. My money would be on the former, Fowler has improved over the years and will want to add another title to the lone tour title he won back in 2012, the Wells Fargo Championship.
There will be plenty of talking points after this weekend in the lead up to the PGA Championship next week but you can be sure that there will be some good golf played this weekend as players attempt to scramble up the FedEx Cup table and aim for a play-off place. While members of Team Europe and Team USA will be looking to get their names into the automatic places for September’s Ryder Cup. With so much on the line, it’s all to play for at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.