Firestone Country Club, host of this week's World Golf Championships - Bridgestone Invitational is the prototype of what a Tour event strives to be... a true players' tournament. But NOT for the same reasons we like the “Players” Championship.
There’s very little water at Firestone and it’s about as simple and fair a layout as one can find. No pot bunkers in the middle of the green, wicked islands with flags thrust in the middle, weird angles to tee off from, railroad tie bunkers, or even unnaturally sharp doglegs. Many states have a course similar to this one; it is the track that will always be one of the best in its respective area because it has no tricks, yet it always manages to keep you coming back for more.
All parts of the game are tested with equal precision and Firestone gradually gets more difficult throughout the round. Yet birdies can be had on almost anywhere. For the best in the world, finishing this event par or better is usually a solid effort, and with a ridiculous purse that means a great payday. Chances are if players aren't prepared for the week, old man par will beat them. Consistency here is the name of the game. Perhaps that’s why Tiger Woods has won the event seven times. Shooting just two or three under every day will put a player in position. That means playing smart and always making a few par putts. It’s not the same drama found in major golf, but it might as well be.
This is a Robert Trent Jones, Sr., design and I would argue it is his best. Decide for yourself. He’s also designed four of my favorite courses, some considered the most difficult of our time: Spyglass Hill, Hazeltine National, Bellerive CC, Point O’Woods in Michigan, and among others Houston Country Club, which I consider top-three in the state of Texas.
The winning score here has been between -6 and -12 in 11 of the last 13 events (since 1999). It’s a typical par 70 with challenging par-4's and a few scoring opportunities, but excellent variety. Most important to the player, the trees provide a consistent guide to know where the hole goes: often dead straight with slight curve. Nothing goofy. If a player doesn’t hit driver, he’ll hit a lot more club into tough pins for placement and attack.
Although greens in regulation is always an important stat to discuss, there is a certain distance of shot that Firestone requires. Five par-4's are over 460 yards and they play that way. Having 170 to 200 yards is a regular event. Par-3's examine the long or mid-irons further: Two par-3’s measure in the 215 to 230 range.
There is very little water at Firestone but it can come into play. The biggest challenge is thick rough - and the targets from tee to green tend to be skinny and small. Weather is expected to be ideal with winds between 10 to 20 MPH. Those light winds are just enough for players to think about, a perfect warm-up for a major (next weeks PGA Championship at Kiawah's Ocean Course).
Players Poised To Win
- Luke Donald finished runner-up last year and has quietly had a good season despite major struggles in the early stages of his rounds. Tree-lined, “out-in-front-of-you,” straightforward types of courses suit his nature. Nothing fancy, just knowing you have to put a shot between towering trees and high rough seems to favor him. His last win was at Wentworth - maybe Firestone’s across-the-pond twin. Finished T5 in his last start, The Open. A win at the Transitions Championship (comparable setup) and five top-12 finishes this year in PGA TOUR events. However he's in serious danger of losing his World No. 1 ranking to none other than...
- Tiger Woods record here is not the only reason you should pick him, but it’s worth mentioning. Or admiring. Since 1999: Win, Win, Win, 4th, T4, T2, Win, Win, Win, and last two years he has struggled to high scores. As we know in this game, recent experience can have an effect on your mojo. A year, however, is like a millenia for a professional golfer. It's a good chance for Woods to get his fourth victory in 2012. Four is a good digit for Woods: he’s won this tournament by four or more shots four times. Greatest margins: 8 shots (2007) and 11 shots (2000).
- Keegan Bradley finished T15 in his first WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and even though he’s had his struggles in the past few months, I think this is a good track for him. His scores last year: 67-65-68-74; first time playing the course, the final round is usually not a gimme. Advantages: drives the ball long and has a solid iron game. Can hack out of rough, is a streaky putter. Made his last four cuts, going steady. Been struggling with chipping in grainy conditions this year, much better when thick rough is in the picture.
Others to Watch
- Jason Dufner is the king of the par 70 course and in the argument for the same title for the 2012 PGA TOUR season. He should have a little chip on his shoulder, too; he’s garnered lots of strange attention from fans, media, other players, etc. After a win and a runner-up in May, he didn’t even win player-of-the-month honors. With his curmudgeon-like demeanor he's easy to underestimate, but that’s why he’s so dangerous on the course. His attitude never waivers. His performance at the US Open proves that he is for real.
- Ball strikers with something to prove right now: Robert Allenby, John Senden, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler (runner-up last year), Adam Scott (defending champion), Sang-Moon Bae, Brandt Snedeker.
- Jim Furyk and Fowler and among a small group that includes Steve Stricker who are currently outside the top-8 in Ryder Cup Standings. Their play here could change that. On the other side of things, players like Bubba Watson and Dufner should be as confident as ever - knowing that they can prepare for a Ryder Cup in their young careers - and off the success of the Masters (Bubba) and other victories (Dufner).
Photo: US Presswire