The USPGA Tour moves to Akron in Ohio this week, with the staging of the $7.5 million WGC Bridgestone Invitational. The tournament is one of the more prestigious events of the season and any prizemoney earned by players is counted as official money on both the US and European Tours.
The tournament used to be known as the World Series Of Golf and was first played in 1962. It quickly became one of the showpiece events of the season and in 1999 it was relaunched as the WGC-NEC Invitational, making it one of the three official individual events of the World Golf Championships (WGC) series. The winner of any of these three events receives 39 Official Golf World Ranking Points, meaning that with The Players Championship (40 points) they are the highest ranking events of the season after the four Major championships, which guarantee the winner 50 points. This is the first year that Bridgestone have sponsored the event.
All of the world’s top ten players will be present at the Firestone Country Club, and its status as an invitation-only tournament means that one of the strongest fields of the season will line up on Thursday. There is no halfway cut and a total of 78 players will play all four rounds, the only absentees being Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke and Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie. Clarke is still recovering from his wife’s death and will not be taking up his invitation, while Montgomerie is assured of a Ryder Cup berth on the European team and so has decided to give himself a week off. Look out for the form of US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, his fellow Australian Adam Scott, South Africa’s Trevor Immelman and Davis Love III – Love was controversially left out of the US Ryder Cup team earlier this week and has a point to prove.
There are two main stories to focus on in the build-up to tomorrow’s first round, however. The first is that of the European Ryder Cup hopefuls and, in particular, Ireland’s Paul McGinley and Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal. The two men occupy the final two qualifying berths for captain Ian Woosnam’s team and they will be looking to consolidate those positions ahead of next week’s final qualifying event in Munich.
Olazabal slipped several place down the rankings following last week’s USPGA Championship after the strong performances from England’s Luke Donald, Spain’s Sergio Garcia and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson. Olazabal had looked to be a certainty to qualify automatically for most of the last two seasons but his form has deserted him as the deadline looms large. He has announced that he will be missing the final qualifying event next week, so both he and Woosnam will be hoping for a finish in at least the top 20 at Firestone. Both will be quietly confident that Olazabal can achieve this – he certainly likes the course and the event. He is a two-time winner and in the opening round of his first victory in 1990 he shot a stunning 61.
McGinley’s decision to miss the USPGA so that he could attend Heather Clarke’s funeral did his Ryder Cup hopes less harm than many predicted. His nearest rivals on the points list, Paul Broadhurst and Kenneth Ferrie, could not captialise on McGinley’s absence at Medinah. Neither Broadhurst nor Ferrie have qualified for this week’s tournament at Firestone, so McGinley has an excellent chance to put some distance between him and the chasing pack ahead of next week. McGinley also has form on the course – he finished third last year, just two shots behind the winner.
That winner was Tiger Woods (pictured with the trophy), and he is the other main story to concentrate on before play begins. The world number one is aiming to win his fourth consecutive tournament this week, a run that includes two Major championships. His superiority over the rest of the world’s top players seems to be growing now that he has managed to re-focus after his father’s sad death earlier in the year.
Wherever he goes he is the star attraction and it will be no different this week. He claims that he is in the best form of his life – better even than in 2000, when he won nine USPGA Tour events including three Majors. His five shot victory at Medinah in the USPGA Championship last week ensured that he became the first man in the history of the modern game to win multiple Major championships in consecutive years (2005 Masters and Open, 2006 Open and USPGA). Even the legendary Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 Majors is now in Woods’ sights, never achieved this feat.
Despite the presence at Firestone of a host of top players, bookmakers have installed Woods at the amazingly short price of 5/4 to win the WGC Bridgestone Invitational for the fifth time. Donald and Garcia have been improving in recent weeks and are now both free of the stress of having to earn Ryder Cup points, but it is impossible to look beyond the world’s best player. Most of the spectators this week will also probably struggle to look beyond him. They have a chance to see a true genius of the sporting world at close quarters, so who could blame them for forsaking the other players and following the great man like pilgrims?