By Dave Shedloski
A PGA Tour event has been staged at the storied South Course at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, since 1954 with the inaugural Rubber City Open. Since then, Firestone has been the site of numerous tournaments, including three PGA Championships in 1960, ’66 and ’75, and now hosts the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, one of four in the WGC stable.
Offering a purse of $9.25 million, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational features 48 of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, including Jordan Spieth, winner of the Masters and U.S. Open, and recently crowned British Open winner Zach Johnson. Seventy-seven players will tee it up, among them Troy Merritt, who qualified for his first WGC start via his breakthrough win last week at the Quicken Loans National.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy is still sidelined by an ankle injury from a soccer kick-about with friends, and after missing the Open Championship at St. Andrews, the world No. 1 player has his sights set on defending his PGA Championship title next week at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Only one player, Hunter Mahan in 2010, does not own a major among WGC-Bridgestone winners at Firestone. That might be good news for Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer, past major champions who need a good week to improve their chances of making the FedExCup Playoffs, which begin in three weeks at The Barclays.
CBS Sports on-course reporter David Feherty stalks the storylines from Northeast Ohio.
Firestone’s South Course has a long and storied past. What comes to mind when you think of the layout?
Firestone conjures up so many images, starting with that iconic big ball on the tee. There are so many great names associated with that golf course over the years. It’s kind of a special place.
What is it about the South Course where almost all of the winners are major champions?
It’s a golf course where you have to use every club in the bag. And it just seems to get better with age, with all the trees hanging over a little more, putting a premium on driving it straight. It’s got a great finish, starting with that big par-5. There’s not another golf course on [the] Tour that has so many straight holes, so it’s very intimidating off the tee. A dead-straight hole can look narrow, and it weighs on you.
Two past major champions, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell, are well outside the top 125 and are in danger of missing the playoffs. This might be a good week for them to make a move.
It’s a strange year. We have a bunch of kids, this new breed coming through who are occupying some places our more established players would normally be in. It just gets harder, the strength and depth are so incredible right now. I keep expecting these young guys to choke, and Troy Merritt, who won last week [at Quicken Loans National], he goes out and birdies two of the last three. They are unbelievable. The evolution of it is incredible; they’ve jumped a few steps.
Is that a product of them watching what Jordan Spieth has done this year at such a young age? They are thinking they can do it, too?
I think it’s ingrained long before Jordan Spieth. I think they have been watching what Tiger Woods has done. These kids were 9, 10, 11 or even younger when Tiger was at his peak. They see what is possible. That’s the vanguard of players coming through now.
You mention Tiger, and he’s not at Firestone, which is kind of an automatic for him, where he’s won eight times.
Tiger not at Firestone… it’s like a nativity scene without one of the wise men. But I think he took two steps forward and just one back. He showed a little more resilience. It’s extraordinary to watch him at his best, and it’s equally extraordinary when he’s at the bottom. He never does anything more than about 8,000 percent. But I think we saw a few good signs from him last week.
It’s time for you to stick your neck out and give us your favorites and dark horses.
I like Jordan Spieth, for obvious reasons. Billy Horschel has been quiet, and he might be ready to win again. Dark horses… I look at Kevin Kisner, who is having an outstanding year. And how about Lee Westwood? I always like Lee Westwood because he drives it so well. [He] hasn’t won in a while, though. And toss in Anirban Lahiri. I think we’re going to hear more from him.
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.