By Dave Shedloski
The annual PGA TOUR slugfest is on tap this week at Firestone Country Club’s big-boy layout, the South Course, when the $9.5 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational returns with its usual stellar cast of characters.
A field of 76 players, 15 more than last year, descends on Akron, Ohio, which has hosted a professional golf event every year since 1954 with the Rubber City Open. World No. 1, Dustin Johnson, and major winners Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth headline a list of competitors that includes 48 of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking vying for the Gary Player Cup.
The South Course at Firestone has proven over the decades to be one of the most demanding on the PGA TOUR. The par-70 layout measures 7,400 yards, and its personality is best expressed in one of the most famous holes in golf, the 667-yard par-5 16th. The late Arnold Palmer called the 16th hole a “Monster” while making triple bogey during the 1960 PGA Championship, and the name has stuck. A stone bridge by the green is being named in his honor on Wednesday.
Johnson is the defending champion, and he currently owns three WGC titles heading to Akron, having also won the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and the WGC-Mexico Championship earlier this year. The South Carolina slugger has won five WGCs overall. But no one, not even Tiger Woods, ever has won three WGC titles in the same calendar year. Johnson can be the first if he repeats on the South Course.
Veteran CBS Sports on-course reporter Peter Kostis takes a look at this week’s storylines.
What has been the key to Firestone South’s long history of hosting PGA TOUR events? Just an all-around tough test?
I hate clichés, but I’m going to use one. It’s right there in front of you. No trickery. You have to go from point A to point B and hit the shots. As Ken Venturi used to say, 16 holes run north-south, so you have to pay attention. And if the wind gets blowing from east or west, it can be a diabolical course to control your golf ball.
Tiger Woods is the last player to win back-to-back in Akron, 10 years ago. Can Dustin Johnson join him as a repeat winner and be the first player to win three WGCs in a year?
He could easily end up winning the WGC grand slam or something like that. It would be quite an accomplishment if he defended his title, but this is a hard event to win with such a strong field. Plus, I’m not sure he’s 100 percent yet. There might be lingering issues with his back. He hasn’t been showing the same body language since the Masters injury.
Another big caddie change in the news. Rory McIlroy has dropped J.P. Fitzgerald. A good move?
No one has ever questioned Rory’s physical skills, aside from putting. But a lot of people have questioned his desire and motivation. This move answers the question from his detractors about how badly he wants to win. You don’t make changes like this at this time of the year unless you’re motivated to get better. He has proven he is motivated.
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They’re honoring Arnold Palmer this week at Firestone. He won three times on the course and gave the 16th hole its nickname.
This is the year that everybody is going to pay tribute to Arnold. Each tournament we go to is the first without him. At the Canadian Open, there was the “AP 55” button they were giving away. It’s a year of remembering Arnold, and clearly it’s well deserved when you think about what he did for golf. Arnold, Frank Chirkinian, the advent of television, Jack Nicklaus … it was all a perfect storm. When you think about his career from [the point of view of] winning majors, it was a short window. But he continued to hit it through the trees and be a great ambassador for golf for decades. He was great with fans and media, and made golf something bigger than it was.
Firestone is a tough test, as we’ve already established. Is it a good warmup for the PGA Championship most years?
There are four types of players: there are driver and analytic guys, and then there are amiable and expressive types. Jack Nicklaus, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo would be in that first group. Lee Trevino, Fuzzy Zoeller, Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples I’d put in the latter group.
There’s this age-old question of should you play the week before a major, and the answer is about personality. The amiable and expressive players, like Dustin Johnson, are going to enjoy this week, to play their way into the next week and build their confidence. Phil Mickelson, for example, likes to play the week before a major. The drivers and analytic types, who prefer to practice the week before, are going to be working on their games while they are competing. Not that they don’t want to win, but they also are thinking ahead and focusing more on where they want their game to be for the PGA Championship.
Favorites and dark horses?
Brooks Koepka, the way he has been playing, would be a favorite. I also like Adam Scott, with his ability to drive the ball, and the fact that he has won there. A dark horse has a different definition this week when it’s such a strong field. So, I say Jon Rahm, since he has never played there before. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul Casey has a good chance.
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 three books and has contributed to three others, including the second edition of “Golf For Dummies,” with Gary McCord. He’s a fan of all Cleveland professional sports teams, the poor fellow.