WGC BRIDGESTONE: An elite 73-man field has gathered in northeast Ohio this week for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, an event that has become synonymous with Firestone Country Club but will move to TPC Southwind in Memphis beginning in 2019. So this is a sendoff of sorts for Firestone’s venerable South Course, a venue that has been a fixture on the PGA Tour schedule for over 50 years, hosting the old World Series of Golf prior to this tournament’s inception and also staging three PGA Championships between 1960-1975.
Firestone is a strenuous tee-to-green test that tips out at 7,400 yards, which is quite meaty for a par-70. There are very few true “birdie holes” on the South Course– there are only two par-5s, and they’re both difficult, but the 16th is especially challenging and generally plays over par for the week, making it an extreme outlier in the world of professional golf. While the course as a whole isn’t especially penal, with few water hazards and OB stakes, its length forces players to hit driver repeatedly, and the thick, lush, U.S. Open-like rough severely penalizes those who aren’t able to hit fairways. Driving it long and straight is the name of the game at Firestone, and the guys that play well here are generally plodding ball-strikers who can take the sting out of the course and make it feel sort of boring.
One such player– Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama– triumphed last year, though his Sunday 61 was anything but boring. And of course, Firestone has been the site of many electric moments in the career of one Tiger Woods, who has won this event a staggering 8 times in 15 appearances. Tiger has flashed the old form lately, holding the lead briefly on Sunday at the Open, and he’s getting more respect in the market this week than he has at any point in his most recent comeback, as he’s now trading at a shortish (right?) 14.5 at BETDAQ.
Dustin Johnson heads the market after his win in Canada last week, and the usual suspects– McIlroy, Spieth, Thomas, Fowler– are close behind. With a field like this, DJ coming off a win, Tiger starting to get it back, some of the other top guys rounding into form… there’s a chance we could see something really memorable this week, which would be a proper farewell for a course like Firestone. Let’s hope it materializes… but more importantly, let’s hope that one of these guys is left holding the trophy on Sunday:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Rickie Fowler (23.0)- The common knock on Fowler is that he simply doesn’t win enough, and that’s probably fair considering he has just four victories in 205 PGA Tour starts. Of course, four wins would be a very fine career for some and Fowler is still in his twenties, but it’s true that he’s often put in the same class as players who have objectively accomplished more than him, some at a younger age. But let’s not get too crazy– Fowler’s brilliance is undeniable, and I don’t think anybody would be too surprised if he won another dozen tournaments and three or four majors over the next 15 years. He’s been playing beautifully over the past few months, finding the top-30 in 7 of his past 8 starts, a span which includes four top-15s and a runner-up at the Masters. He flirted around with contention at the Open before fading on Saturday and going on to finish 28th, and after a week off he should be fresh and ready for the season’s final crucial stretch. Critically, Fowler has a tremendous record at Firestone, logging five top-10s in eight career appearances at this event. I think he’s priced very fairly here considering his recent form and course history, and I’m happy to hop aboard at better than 20/1.
Zach Johnson (70.0)- Can this man get some respect? How many more majors does he have to win? How many more times does he have to pop up on the first page of the leaderboard on Sunday? If it seems like Johnson is an every-week fixture among the leaders, it’s because he basically is– he’s found the top-20 in each of his past four starts and has now finished 26th or better in 13 of his 18 starts this season. He’s a machine who’s still at the absolute height of his powers, and that’s saying something considering he’s notched 12 career PGA Tour victories and a pair of majors. He’s not particularly long off the tee, which is presumably why people are hesitant about him most weeks, and he’ll be hitting plenty of long irons at Firestone. But that’s never stopped him before– Johnson has five career top-10s in this event and he finished runner-up last year, with Matsuyama needing a Sunday 61 to hold him off. I consider him a must-bet this week at nearly 70/1.
Charley Hoffman (98.0)- Hoffman is a fairways-and-greens type who profiles as someone who should play well at Firestone, and indeed he has, finishing in the top-half of the field in each of his five career appearances in this event and nearly winning last year, when he broke 70 in all four rounds and went on to finish third. His ball-striking stats have been very good over the past few weeks and the results have followed, as Hoffman enters this week on the heels of four straight top-30 finishes– a streak that would be four straight top-20s had he played a better final round in last week’s Canadian Open. But he’s striking the ball well and he should have loads of confidence at Firestone, so it will likely come down to the putter for Hoffman, as it often does. If he catches a little magic with the flat stick, look out… he’s certainly accustomed to being in contention in big-time fields, and 98.0 is an awfully generous price for a player of his caliber.