September 15, 2014

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Bridgestone Invitational: No Tiger means no clear favorite in this year’s tournament

AKRON — The field of 80 won’t have to worry about some guy named Eldrick for the first time in 11 years, but that doesn’t mean Firestone Country Club’s South Course won’t have its claws out.
Tiger Woods, a 15-time World Golf Championships winner and six-time Bridgestone/NEC Invitational has never finished lower than fifth in Akron. So who is the favorite in this elite and international field, since “Mr. Firestone” is off tending to his bum knee?
The top 50 players in the world golf rankings, tournament winners and members of the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams make up the field. Las Vegas has Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for 46th last year, as the front-runner but according to most of the names in the game, it could come down to anyone.
“In this field, anybody can (win),” said Stuart Appleby, who is competing in his 29th consecutive WGC event. “We’ve had all sorts of players do well here. Certainly it’s a world event and it’s certainly the world’s players.
“It’s been obviously the Australians, the English and one American’s done good here,” he kidded. “This is a world-class course and the players set themselves up to play here. I think there will be no surprises.”
That leaves players like Kenny Perry, Anthony Kim, Stewart Cink and Jim Furyk with a welcome mat to the Gary Player Cup trophy that has gone to Woods the last three years.
Perry has three wins, including The Memorial, and two top-10 finishes in his last six starts. He comes in fresh off a sixth-place finish at the U.S. Bank Championship after winning the John Deere Classic and Buick Open.
“If I remember, I think Kenny Perry was real hot here a couple years ago (he finished tied for sixth in 2005),” Henrik Stenson said. “It feels good to come back to the same course. You know the course. You’ve played it quite a few times now. So that always sets it up for a good tournament.
“I think a player in good shape and on good form is always going to be dangerous … regardless of the course.”
That puts Kim in the mix as well. A win at the AT&T National followed by top-10 finishes at the British Open (tied for 7th) and RBC Canadian Open (tied for 8th) make him a prime contender.
But more than anything, success breeds success at Firestone. Furyk has finished in the top 10 five times on the South Course — more than anyone playing this week — and had one of the most memorable moments in the event’s history.
In 2001, the 38-year-old took Woods to a seven-hole playoff before falling as twilight hit the course in what was then the NEC Invitational.
He missed 2007 with a back injury, but has returned to Firestone and is ready to take advantage of a field missing its biggest gun.
Furyk ranks fourth in all-time earnings at Bridgestone and is the highest-ranked player who has yet to hoist the trophy. His scoring average of 68.81 is second only to Woods’ 67.58.
“I’ve always liked coming here,” Furyk said. “It’s an old traditional golf course. It goes back and forth. I’ve played well here in the past. I always get excited coming here.”
That’s probably what Cink is counting on as well. The 35-year-old won the event in 2004 and took Woods to a four-hole playoff in 2006.
“I think the only surprises will be that the market that watches TV doesn’t really know world golf names,” Appleby said. “But proper golf fans, people who are watching it most weeks, will know who these players are and know that they’re respected for what they do.”
Contact Brad Bournival at sports@ohio.net.

 BRIDGESTONE INVITATIONAL

WHAT: World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational.
WHO: The top 50 players in the world golf rankings, tournament winners and members of the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams make up the field.
WHERE: Firestone Country Club’s 7,400-yard, par-70 South Course.
WHEN: With the field growing to 80, tournament officials have moved the tee times for the first two rounds up three hours to 8:30 a.m. on the first and 10th holes. Gates will open an hour before the first groups go off.
DEFENDING CHAMP: Tiger Woods (will not play due to injury).
PURSE: $8 million with $1.35 million going to the winner.
OUTLOOK: Woods is out and attendance might be down a bit, but that doesn’t mean the golf won’t be exciting. In fact, the field is wide open and could bring some great action on Day 4. Kenny Perry has logged three wins and two top-10 finishes in his last six starts. Stewart Cink, who won the event in 2004 and took Woods to a four-hole playoff in 2006, can’t be counted out and either can Rory Sabbatini, who has had some good rounds on the South Course. If there’s a dark horse it comes in Jim Furyk. The 38-year-old is best remembered for losing an exciting seven-hole playoff to Woods in 2001 when the event was called the NEC Invitational.