WGC Bridgestone Invitational Preview, Picks & Analysis
ONE of the strongest fields of the year will gather at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, with Dustin Johnson defending the title he won 12 months ago.
You have to tip your cap to these guys, many of whom have gone from Scotland to Birkdale then on to Canada before flying down to Ohio and will next week climb aboard another plane and head to Quail Hollow for the US PGA Championship. Life is good for the world's best golfers, but it can also be pretty exhausting and it is a tribute to their fitness levels that, week after week, they are able to sustain such an incredible level of performance.
Johnson was in the middle of a sublime run of form when he won this event in 2016, beating Scott Piercey by a shot thanks to final round of 66. In a share of third place were Jason Day and Kevin Chappell, alongside Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar, the men who provided us with such incredible drama during the final two rounds of The Open Championship at Birkdale. Johnson was the US Open champion and, for a time, he appeared to be unbeatable.
The Dustinator has struggled since injuring himself in the run-up to The Masters, failing to recapture the form that made him such a dominant force in the game and took him to the top of the world rankings. But he was back to his best at the Canadian Open and if ever there was a course that was set up to get the big man firing on all cylinders again it is Firestone. It is a bombers' paradise, with relatively wide fairways and greens as soft as a sponge. Johnson showed some encouraging signs at Birkdale and seemed to be on the verge of dialling in his wedges once again.
It was here in 2015 that Shane Lowry won for the first time on American soil. It was won in 2010 by Hunter Mahan, in 2011 by Adam Scott, in 2012 by Keegan Bradley, in 2013 by Tiger Woods for the eighth time and in 2014 by Rory McIlroy. The fact that Woods won this tournament so many times confirms that accuracy from the tee is not a prerequisite and that it helps if you can hit the ball a long way.
McIlroy was disappointed not to make a more serious challenge for the Claret Jug but there were plenty of things to like about his play at Birkdale. He made an awful start but somehow found a way to keep on the fringes of contention and his scrambling on day two was world class – it was a day when he finally remembered how to hole putts from inside 10 feet. He missed too many fairways to have a realistic chance of catching Spieth, and there were also several mental errors. And in the third round, when he was mounting a proper challenge, he hit a couple of loose shots that reminded us of just how fallible he can be.
But it is easy to forget that he missed a large part of the season through injury, as well as missing three cuts out of four. McIlroy remains the most naturally gifted player on the planet and has always been fairly inconsistent. He will have spells where he puts it all together for three or four weeks, and there are other times when golf is a battle for him. The latter has been the case for much of 2017, and he has yet to win this year. However, he is returning to a course that he tore to shreds three years ago, with a winning score of 265, 15 under par. Only Scott (263) and Woods have played better, and those who witnessed it still shake their heads in disbelief at what Woods did here in 2000 when, at the absolute peak of his powers, he produced a four-round winning total of 259 to win by 11 strokes.
As ever with McIlroy, the short stick is the key. He holed some magnificent putts during The Open, but the harsh reality is that he also missed far too many short ones. Maybe we just have to accept that it is ever going to be thus with the Northern Irishman. Next up for him is the US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, where he has won twice before and where he holds the course record. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could win both these tournaments and turn a bitterly disappointing season into a successful one. There will be also be further intrigue surrounding Rory after it was reported that he had split from long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald after nine years together.
Spieth will, of course, have something to say about that. He is not one of the game's bombers, but anybody who putts like he does can win on any golf course in any conditions. He is now back up to second in the world rankings and knows that he can overtake Johnson at the summit. He also has the added incentive of knowing that a win at Quail Hollow will complete a career Grand Slam for him at the age of 24.
Daniel Berger will take a look at Firestone and feel that he has the game to win there too. He hits the ball miles and is one of the best in the business with a mid iron in his hands, and is also now a proven winner who feels right at home on the leaderboard. The young American could well be the game's next superstar, although it is fair to say that he has a lot of competition for that position, with the likes of US Open champion Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed and, of course, Spieth all doing their best to dominate the game.
Many people were surprised that Koepka chose to take several weeks off after winning the US Open but he arrived at Birkdale as fresh as a daisy and simply picked up where he left off. He is a highly impressive physical specimen who possesses plenty of effortless power. His victory at Erin Hills has clearly worked wonders for his confidence and, for that reason alone, he cannot be ruled out at Firestone.
It is also a big week for the likes of Lee Westwood. His ranking is on the slide and he is only in the field because he was a member of Europe's 2016 Ryder Cup team. The veteran Englishman is in need of a big week to get back into the all-important top 50 in the world, and he will surely take heart from the progress that Ian Poulter has made. Westwood remains a beautiful ball striker and drives the ball as well as most. People will point to his frailties on the greens but the truth is that Westwood has never been a great putter.
It is a mark of how far he has fallen and a salutary warning to all that Lowry is not even in the field this time.
To Win: Rory McIlroy. Looking for a huge finish to the year
Each Way: Jordan Spieth. Certain to be there or thereabouts
Each Way: Dustin Johnson. Has great memories of this place
Rory McIlroy. At his best he is unbeatable
Jordan Spieth. If the putter is hot he will win again
Dustin Johnson. Fully fit again
Daniel Berger. On the rise
Brooks Koepka. Walking on air
Lee Westwood. Needs a big week – and how
Paul Casey. Needs to rediscover the killer instinct
Rickie Fowler. Looking for an upturn
Matt Kuchar. Another week, another top-10 finish
Hideki Matsuyama. Looking good again
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