WGC Bridgestone Invitational Preview, Picks & Analysis
LESS than eight months ago Tiger Woods was ranked outside the top 1,000 professional golfers in the world. When he announced his comeback at the Hero World Challenge in December, just a couple of months after telling the world he did not know whether he would ever again play tournament golf, there were many who expected that it would end in tears again. After everything he had been through, it was hardly surprising. But, not for the first time in his career, Woods has dumbfounded his critics and silenced the cynics.
After finishing sixth at The Open Championship at Carnoustie, Woods has climbed back into the top 50 in the world rankings and has qualified for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club. It will be his first appearance there since 2014, when injury forced him to retire during the final round, and it just may be the crowning achievement in what has been a glorious career.
And the world of golf had better watch out because this is a tournament that Woods has owned. He has won it EIGHT times. Let us repeat that - he has won it EIGHT times. And he has done so while playing golf that was a lot less impressive than some of the form he has produced during an astonishing 2018. To put things in perspective, Woods has managed to get himself back into the top 50 from just 13 events on the PGA Tour - and there was an early missed cut among that lot.
He came within a whisker of winning the Valspar, he finished in a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, 11th at the Players Championship despite putting his tee shot in the water at the 71st hole, was fourth at the Quicken Loans and then capped it all with a sixth-place finish at Carnoustie where he led with eight holes to play before pushing too hard for the 15th major he so craves.
Having been appointed by Jim Furyk as a Ryder Cup vice-captain, it now seems certain that Woods will instead be a playing member of the team, even though Furyk has remained pretty tight-lipped about the possibility. His Ryder Cup record is not terribly impressive but this is a new Tiger Woods. He would be the first to admit that, in the past, he did not buy into the team ethic terribly well but during his comeback we have seen a man who is eager to interact with his fellow professionals.
The top eight players in the points list after the US PGA Championship will qualify automatically for the US team, with Furyk having four picks. It is surely inconceivable that Woods will not be given one of those picks. And he may not need one - he is 20th in the standings and a victory at Firestone or at the final major of the season would make him an automatic choice anyway.
He is not far away from the form that won him 14 majors and, despite all the injuries he has suffered, he looks to be in magnificent shape at the age of 42 years.
All that is missing from his CV is a victory. Many pundits thought it would never happen again, but it is surely now a matter of when, not if. And what better course to get it back on track than Firestone, especially with the US PGA Championship just around the corner.
Six of Woods’ eight victories at Firestone came prior to 2008, including the first three in the event’s history from 1999-2001. Woods has delivered some of the most memorable shots in Firestone Country Club’s storied history, including his famed shot in the dark on 18th hole in 2000 en route to an 11-stroke victory.
Following the Player Championship he stated that one of his goals for the year was to qualify for this tournament. “One of my goals is to get into Akron one last time before we leave there. I’ve won there eight times and I’d love to get there with one more chance. Hopefully I can put together one good event.”
Hideki Matsuyama is the defending champion, it was won in 2016 by Dustin Johnson, in 2015 by Shane Lowry, in 2014 by Rory McIlroy, in 2013 by Woods, in 2012 by Keegan Bradley and in 2011 by Adam Scott.
After a purple patch in 2016 and 2017, Matsuyama has struggled to find his best form this season. But the Japanese golfer is a class act, and it would be foolish to write him off. He has not had a single top-10 finish in 2018 and missed the cut by a shot at The Open, but he remains a brilliant ball striker and all the evidence suggests that he is not terribly far away from rediscovering his best form. He has always been a streaky putter and it is on the greens that he has suffered his biggest headaches this year. But that can all turn around in an instant - as Francesco Molinari has proved since starting his astonishing purple patch at the end of May.
The first Italian to win a major is now sixth in the world rankings, which is a quite remarkable achievement for a player that nobody gave much of a second look to just three months ago. He has always been deadly accurate from the tee and he has always been a wonderful iron player, but it is on the greens where he has been transformed. Always known as a dodgy putter, he has worked with Denis Pugh and renowned putting guru Paul Kenyon and the results are there for all to see. He never looks like missing now. It just goes to prove that the most important six inches in golf are the ones between your ears. To all intents and purposes, his putting stroke looks identical to the one he has always used, but he now has an entirely different mental approach and when he stands over the ball he expects to hole everything.
Speaking of the world rankings, Justin Rose is now up to a career-high second place after finishing second at Carnoustie and is snapping at the heels of Johnson. A victory this week will see him overtake the American, although he would probably rather wait for the US PGA Championship before achieving that feat. It is a wonderful reward for a golfer who never stopped believing, despite missing his first 21 cuts as a professional.
Success has not come easy for Rose. While McIlroy is a natural talent, Rose has to work on his game. But, like Molinari, his transformation has also come on the greens and he now expects to win every time he tees the ball up.
To Win: Tiger Woods. It’s time to convert all that good golf into a win
Each Way: Rory McIlroy. Needs to start holing some putts
Each Way: Dustin Johnson. In sensational form
Tiger Woods. Would be a hugely popular winner
Rory McIlroy. Due another victory surely
Dustin Johnson. Full of self-belief
Justin Rose. Mr Consistent
Francesco Molinari. In the form of his life
Rickie Fowler. Has a point or two to prove
Kevin Kisner. Don’t ever write off this guy
Kevin Chappell. A quietly impressive player
Matt Kuchar. Just keeps grinding out the results
Paul Casey. On the verge of a Ryder Cup recall
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