Breaking down the Bridgestone

AKRON, Ohio – The world’s best golfers tee it up starting Thursday morning in the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational.

With most of the field having taken last weekend off following the British Open and pointing towards next week’s final major of the season, the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C., this cut-free tournament makes for one heck of a sandwich event. The purse at Firestone Country Club this week is $8.5 million; the winner’s share is $1.4 million.

A loaded field of 78 is chasing it, headlined by seven-time Bridgestone Invitational champ Tiger Woods and defending champ Adam Scott, who looks to bounce back after giving away the British Open over the final four holes. In addition to taking on a long, history-laden course and a star-studded field, both American and European players are in the stretch run in trying to secure spots for next month’s Ryder Cup, while nine of the top 10 golfers in the FedEx Cup standings are here and any player who stands 43rd or better in the FedEx Cup standings could jump all the way into the top 10 with a win at Firestone.

Below are five key storylines for the Bridgestone and the weeks that follow…

Tiger’s Den

He’s always the one most are watching, and he’s owned this course. Woods won this event an astounding seven times between 1999-2009, and even hovered near contention for the first two days last year while playing it off a long layoff and at less than 100 percent health.

2012 has given us glimpses of the old Tiger, as Woods has won three times but finished a non-threatening third at the British and well out of contention at the prior two majors. Upon arriving at what he called one of his favorite courses here Wednesday, Woods declared that he’s “infinitely” healthier than he was a year ago and ready for a stretch he’s many times dominated.

With a win here this weekend, Woods could regain the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Rankings for the first time in 23 months.

In the last two years here, he’s tied for 78th and 37th. This looks like a new/old Tiger, though, and anything less than a top-10 this weekend would qualify as both a surprise and a disappointment.

British Hangover?

Scott did everything but finish a dominating British Open performance, and maybe part of snapping back will be returning to Firestone. He shot a blazing 62 in the first round here last year and cruised to a wire-to-wire victory.

He has the added advantage of having caddie Stevie Williams, who was on his bag last year and was with Woods for those seven titles. Williams certainly knows the course and will be on Scott early to stay focused and shake whatever feelings might be lingering from Royal Lytham.

After Williams’ impromptu, spotlight-grabbing post-tournament press conference here last year, golf fans await the sizzle of a weekend Scott-Woods pairing. There’s a very real chance it could come here at Firestone.

Hot Hands

Luke Donald, the world’s top-ranked player, tied for second here last year and tied for fifth at the British Open. Like Scott, Donald is still dealing with the disappointment of not winning a major, but his game is in good shape and he knows the Firestone course well.

“You have to really plot your way around this place, be very consistent tee to green, and obviously be good on the greens,” Donald said. “It’s a place I’ve been relatively successful but haven’t quite got to the point of winning.  So hopefully that will change this year.”

Few golfers have been better this summer than Zach Johnson, whose six top-10 finishes in 2012 include two wins and two seconds. He’s made over $4 million this calendar year, almost matching his total from the last two years combined with bigger opportunities still ahead.

Donald will play with struggling Phil Mickelson Thursday morning and Friday afternoon. Other notable early pairings here include three-time 2012 winners Woods and Branden Grace, Rickie Fowler and Lee Westwood, Scott and Matt Kuchar and British Open champion Ernie Els with Masters champion Bubba Watson.

Back On Track?

Rory McIlroy said he’s “getting closer” to being back to the form that saw him land in the top five nearly every week for a stretch that started last fall and carried into early 2012. He missed three straight cuts in a May-June stretch and has struggled at each of the year’s three majors.

But McIlroy is still young, talented and knows he has to be better to maintain his grip on the No. 3 spot in the world rankings. He’s spoken this week of being comfortable at Firestone, getting in some good and much-needed practice and seems primed to at least contend this weekend, with the intention of carrying it forward to the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.

“I’d love to just get into contention and just feel the buzz of having a chance to win a tournament coming down the back nine on Sunday,” McIlroy said. “It’s something that is quite addictive and something that I’d love to be able to do that at some point in the next few weeks. I feel like I’m doing enough work and I’m putting in the effort to try and do that.”

Down The Stretch

The Bridgestone is one of the most prestigious non-majors on the schedule, and the timing makes it extra important for much of the field. Still to come are the PGA Championship, the Ryder Cup and the FedEx playoffs.

Hunter Mahan holds the eighth and final automatic qualifying spot in the U.S. Ryder Cup team standings, but he is $653,522 ahead of 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley in ninth place.
Seven of the 10 spots on the European Ryder Cup team seem to be all but sealed, making it very much crunch time for players like Peter Hanson, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia, Nicolas Colsaerts and Ian Poulter, all of whom are contending for the final three automatic spots.

There have been three different major winners this season, and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson is not here following the birth of his child. With the PGA Championship a week away and the FedEx Cup Playoffs still to come, the race for Player of the Year is wide open with several big-money events still looming.

“It’s not over yet,” Woods said.

At Firestone, it’s just beginning.