The galleries came in force to see the world’s top golfer at the peak of his powers, but those who flocked to the Firestone Country Club in Ohio witnessed a very different Tiger Woods to the one they had seen in the previous three tournaments.
Woods (pictured) completed his fourth win in as many starts – a remarkable run that includes two Major championships – but the dominance that he displayed in winning his three previous tournaments ebbed away as he was forced to clinch the WGC Bridgestone Invitational via a sudden death playoff win over fellow American Stewart Cink after both men finished on -10 for 72 holes.
As Woods stood on the 14th tee with a three stroke lead it looked like a sense of deja-vu would descend over all those watching on TV and on the course, but the last five holes sparked something of an uncharacteristic mini collapse for the 12 time Major winner as he allowed Cink to recover the ground and force a playoff. Cink repaid the faith shown in him by US Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman last week by showing his best form of the season so far – it was his first start since Lehman had chosen the 33 year-old as one of his two wildcard picks for next month’s Ryder Cup clash with Europe in Ireland.
In the end it took an eight-foot birdie putt at the fourth extra hole to clinch Woods’ fourth win in a row and the 52nd of his glorious career thus far on the USPGA Tour. It was his fifth win in the event from just seven starts, and he banked a winner’s cheque for almost £700,000 on the tenth anniversary of him turning professional. His 52 career wins move him into joint fifth place with Byron Nelson on the list of all-time USPGA Tour winners. Only four of his compatriots now lie ahead of him – Arnold Palmer (62), Ben Hogan (64), Jack Nicklaus (73) and Sam Snead (82) are the only men with more US Tour wins.
“I was very lucky to even be in a playoff,” he said after clinching his latest win.
“I wasn’t swinging the club very consistently at all today. I got hot on the back nine, made some nice putts but then really messed up the 16th. But it’s always nice to walk away with a win, no matter how you do it.”
England’s Paul Casey secured his place in Europe’s Ryder Cup team by finishing in tie for fourth place after his final round of 71 left him three shots behind Woods and Cink on -7. He held a one stroke lead with nine holes to play but played the final eight holes in three-over-par to slip down the leaderboard.
“I’m very happy with my effort all things considered,” Casey reflected.
“I thought I played OK but I didn’t make anything on the back nine and was a little bit unlucky on the 16th. But I’m delighted to have made the Ryder Cup team as that is always the goal at the start of the year.”
Jim Furyk of the USA continued his most consistent of seasons by finishing in third place on -9, while Argentina’s Angel Cabrera finished tied with Casey on -7. Casey and Cabrera were joined on seven-under by the American duo Davis Love III and Lucas Glover, both of whom put their disappoitment at being left out by Lehman behind them by finishing the week well inside the top ten. England’s Luke Donald continued his good recent form by finishing one stroke behind on -6.
There was frustrating news for European Ryder Cup hopefuls Jose Maria Olazabal and Paul McGinley, however. Both men were looking for strong performances in the penultimate qualifying event at Firestone to put some daylight between themselves and the other Europeans chasing the final qualifying spots for skipper Ian Woosnam’s team. Olazabal finished in a tie for 22nd place and only slightly stengthened his position in the final qualifying place, while McGinley could only manage a tie for 66th position and failed to pick up any ranking points.
Both men now face an agonising week ahead of Thursday’s final points scoring event in Munich. Olazabal has already stated that he won’t be playing in Germany and he will be hoping that those men behind him, such as Paul Broadhurst, Kenneth Ferrie and Johan Edfors, don’t finish in the top five and dislodge him from the automatic berth that he has held for most of the year.