AKRON, Ohio — In the dark, head-to-head, 11 shots clear of the pack, from rooftops and in every other conceivable way, Tiger Woods has dominated at Firestone Country Club.
He just says it makes him feel comfortable.
“I’ve done it all different ways, that’s the thing,” Woods said Wednesday, the day before beginning his run at an eighth win at the Bridgestone Invitational. “Some years I’ve striped it and have really played well, and other years I’ve hit it all over the lot and had to be creative. I’ve chipped and putted and holed out. It’s been such a mixed bag.”
Woods, coming off a disappointing British Open and steeling for the PGA Championship next week at Oak Hill, headlines a bumper crop of world-class players who are entered. The 73-player field includes 49 of the top 50 players in the world ranking, including this year’s major champions (Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson), last year’s winner (Keegan Bradley) and European stars Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood.
Yet, Woods always seems to grab the spotlight. That’s what happens when a player has won more than $9.5 million in just 14 appearances at a single venue.
Woods’ first win, in what was then called the NEC Invitational, came in 1999 when he shot a third-round 62 to win in his third appearance, holding off Mickelson by a shot. A year later, Woods’ triumphal march to an 11-shot victory on the final day was delayed by inclement weather, with his final putt finding the bottom of the cup in almost total darkness. The strobe lights of photographers made it look like a scene from an old movie.
The year after that, Woods overcame Jim Furyk in an epic, seven-hole, sudden-death playoff for his third win in a row at Firestone.
After finishing fourth, tying for fourth and tying for second the next three years, Woods strung together wins in his next four appearances. The win in 2006 is remembered for a wayward 9-iron shot that hit on the cart path near the ninth hole and bounced onto the roof of the clubhouse, the ball being pocketed by a kitchen helper.
Woods won by eight shots in 2007 and then missed the tournament the following year as he recovered from knee surgery. Even that didn’t halt his string as he returned in 2009 and took advantage of Padraig Harrington’s triple-bogey 8 on the 70th hole to win by four strokes.
“This is one of those courses where, for me over the years, I just have felt very comfortable,” Woods said. “I think my record has been pretty good since I’ve turned pro here.”
But, as there always seems to be with Woods since his personal meltdown, there are nagging questions. After streaking to 14 major championship victories, he has failed to win in his last 17 tries.
The latest disappointment came at Muirfield two weeks ago when he seemed in perfect spot to win but faded to a closing 74 and watched rival Mickelson come out of nowhere to swoop in and grab the claret jug.
“I had a chance to win and didn’t get it done on Sunday,” Woods said.
Others are plotting to not only win the Bridgestone but use it as a springboard to the year’s final major a week later.
Mickelson, returning to action after the dramatic win at Muirfield, is geared up to continue his hot play. He won the Scottish Open the week before the British. Why not make it four in a row by sweeping through the Bridgestone and PGA?
“Playing the week before (a major) personally helps me play my best and get my best golf out,” he said.
Rose won the U.S. Open at Merion, then turned around and had his high hopes dashed when he missed the cut in his homeland’s national championship. After time off, he’s rejuvenated and ready for golf’s version of the stretch run.
“You can’t rest on your laurels,” he said. “After the U.S. Open I had time constraints and would miss the odd practice session. Your game soon lets you know about that. The last couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to get back to normal, get back to doing all the right things.”
A player trying to salvage what has been a winless calendar year is Rory McIlroy, still No. 3 in the world rankings behind Woods and Mickelson. But he’s encouraged by looking back at where he was just about a year ago.
“I was really searching last year for answers,” he said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I just need to go out there and play. I was focusing too much on mechanics and technique, and I just needed to go out there and see the shots and play them. Obviously, that seemed to work well.”
It worked so well that McIlroy had a top 10 at the Bridgestone and then turned around and captured the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
Bradley, who took advantage of Furyk’s double bogey on the 72nd hole to win last year, gets wired just coming to Firestone, an historic old layout that has hosted many memorable majors and regular tour events over the decades.
“Because of the history of the golf course, you really can feel it,” he said. “It’s one of these courses where you can tell the tournament has got a little more of a buzz to it.”
This year, the buzz is especially loud.