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Massive disappointment last week with headline selection Alex Levy missing a 3-foot putt for victory at the Porsche European Open before losing out to Jordan Smith at the second play-off hole in Hamburg. A cruel game sometimes for players and punters alike, however we have chance to make amends this week as he head to Akron, Ohio for the third WGC event of the season.
After last season's schedule changes to accommodate the Olympics, the Bridgestone Invitational is back to its regular pre-US PGA Championship position and with a far stronger overall field with players not having the distraction of the French Open running alongside it as we had last year. With just Brandt Snedeker having dropped out of the field due to injury at the time of writing, we're left with an exceptional line-up featuring the cream of the golfing elite as they look to prepare for the final Major of the season next week at Quail Hollow.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Barracuda Championship - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Firestone Country Club (South Course), Akron, Ohio. Designer: Bert Way 1928 with Robert Trent Jones renovation 1960; Course Type: Technical; Par: 70; Length: 7,400 yards; Bunkers: 82; Fairways: Pencross Bentgrass/Poa Annua; Rough: Kentucky Bluegrass with Perennial Ryegrass; Greens: Bent/Poa Annua; Stimpmeter: 13ft.
Course Overview. The tough 7,400 yard par 70 - which is regularly in the top third of course difficulty stats - features tight, tree-lined fairways leading to bent/poa greens that measure around 13 on the stimp in normal conditions. 6 of the par-4s are over 450 yards in length and the brutal 677 yard, par-5 16th is a match for even the longest of hitters. The short par-5 second hole is a birdie or eagle chance for the whole field, however the layout soon toughens up with the long par-4 4th and 6th holes that regularly play amongst the hardest on the course. Long, straight hitting tends to be the order of the day, however players who can get within birdie range will find that the excellent greens here are scoreable.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's WGC Bridgestone Invitational that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Dustin Johnson, 8/1; 2015: Shane Lowry, 150/1; 2014: Rory McIlroy, 7/1; 2013: Tiger Woods, 5/1; 2012: Keegan Bradley, 60/1; 2011: Adam Scott, 50/1; 2010: Hunter Mahan, 50/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Akron, Ohio is here. Thunderstorms could cause disruption to Wednesday's practice round and more significant problems for both Thursday and Friday's play. If they do arrive - which looks fairly likely at this stage - then the course is likely to receive a fair amount of rain too which will both soften the fairways and greens and make it play longer still.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 7 winners here at Firestone gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Fairways are tight and even the straightest players from off the tee are likely to be playing out of the rough with regularity, so the ability to find putting surfaces from both the rough and fairway is important - indeed 12th from Keegan Bradley in 2012 was the worst GIR performance of those listed above. Firestone is a long course for a par 70 and it's no surprise that every winner in that same timeframe ranked inside the top 23 for driving distance on the week which puts them around the top 30% or so in the field. All 7 players above ranked inside the top 14 for putting on the week with McIlroy the worst at 1.70 putts per GIR, although that was enough given he'd led the field for greens hit on the week. So long, high GIR and a decent week on the greens seems to be the order of the day.
Over those 7 renewals, the average birdie haul of the eventual winner has been around 20 on the week (DJ needed just 16 last year) - given that there are only two par-5s and going for the 16th in two shots isn't possible for the majority of the field, players will need to compile a decent score on the par-4s around this course in order to get into a contending position. Taking advantage of the shorter par-5 2nd hole is a must, however birdies need to be found with a fair amount of regularity on the par-4s.
There are some rock solid
trends from recent years to consider in this event when formulating a shortlist:
Incoming Form: Three of the last four winners here have
been seriously short-priced and with their recent form it was clear to
see why they were so well-fancied. Tiger Woods had already won the WGC
Cadillac Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players
Championship before completing yet another victory here at Firestone in
2013; Rory had won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth before arriving
here fresh from winning the Open Championship at Hoylake in 2014 and Dustin Johnson
was playing for the first time since winning his first Major
Championship at Oakmont last year.
The other 4 winners since 2010 were
a little less obvious, however even so Hunter Mahan had won earlier in
the year in Phoenix, Adam Scott had finished runner-up at Augusta,
Keegan Bradley had finished runner-up at Riviera earlier in 2012 and the
longest-priced player of them all Shane Lowry (150/1) had produced
high-profile top-10 finishes at both the BMW PGA Championship and US
Open in recent outings.
Event Form: Tiger Woods skews many a statistic,
particularly on the courses where he dominated such as here at
Firestone. 2013 marked his eighth success here in Akron, however Lowry
aside all the other winners listed had recorded at least a top-20 finish
here prior to winning.
Incoming Form: Three of the last four winners here have been seriously short-priced and with their recent form it was clear to see why they were so well-fancied. Tiger Woods had already won the WGC Cadillac Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship before completing yet another victory here at Firestone in 2013; Rory had won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth before arriving here fresh from winning the Open Championship at Hoylake in 2014 and Dustin Johnson was playing for the first time since winning his first Major Championship at Oakmont last year.
The other 4 winners since 2010 were a little less obvious, however even so Hunter Mahan had won earlier in the year in Phoenix, Adam Scott had finished runner-up at Augusta, Keegan Bradley had finished runner-up at Riviera earlier in 2012 and the longest-priced player of them all Shane Lowry (150/1) had produced high-profile top-10 finishes at both the BMW PGA Championship and US Open in recent outings.
Event Form: Tiger Woods skews many a statistic, particularly on the courses where he dominated such as here at Firestone. 2013 marked his eighth success here in Akron, however Lowry aside all the other winners listed had recorded at least a top-20 finish here prior to winning.
Also worthy of note is that 20 of the last 22 Firestone winners were already Major champions, however again that's skewed by the dominance of Woods and in Mahan and Lowry you could also infer that the tide has changed a little in that respect.
As we've seen with recent Majors, the sheer strength in depth at the top of world golf at present makes for an interesting betting market. Jordan Spieth is the bookies' favourite at 8/1 generally and with Rory McIlroy in 2014 having recently completed Open Championship - WGC Bridgestone back-to-back wins, despite his understandable celebrations after capturing the Claret Jug a fortnight ago it's certainly not out of the question that he wins here. Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson both rate 10/1 shots this week, however there are question marks over both players with Rory having recently split with caddy JP Fitzgerald and Dustin admitting to still not being 100% following his pre-Augusta fall. As the odds suggest, this is yet another very open tournament where a case can be made for a multitude of players.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My selections are as follows:
Jordan Spieth arrives at another strict ball-striking test as the bookies favourite this week and after riding his luck and putting incredibly well at the end to win The Open Championship a fortnight ago at Royal Birkdale, whether he can repeat that feat here remains to be seen. Firestone South isn't the best fit to Spieth's game, however the same could be said of the Southport links and we all saw what happened there. It's been a whirlwind 2 weeks for the Texan though as he's paraded the Claret Jug to all and sundry and there's just enough doubt in my mind to leave him out here. Dustin Johnson still isn't swinging his clubs as freely as he likes following his early-season injury, Rory McIlroy will have his friend Harry Diamond on the bag this week after sacking his caddy of 9 years JP Fitzgerald and 4th favourite Rickie Fowler must have his eye firmly on next week given how well he's played at Quail Hollow in the past as he seeks a long overdue maiden Major title.
Going back to last year, eventual winner Dustin Johnson conquered Firestone with a sublime driving performance having previously ranked 1st for Total Driving at the St Jude Classic (finished 5th) and the US Open (won) to suggest he was in the form of his life with his long game. Following the same logic takes us immediately to Brooks Koepka who produced identical rankings at St Jude (finished 37th) and the US Open (won) before finishing a creditable 6th at Royal Birkdale on his last start. Now there's a lot more to the 27 year-old's chances here than simply marring up some year-on-year statistics, however golf often produces these slap-you-round-the-face obvious stats and for me that's hard to ignore.
6th here in 2015 is the Florida native's only full attempt at this title (he withdrew after 13 holes due to injury last year), however 4 rounds in the 60s is no mean feat around this challenging track and he's clearly moved on massively since that time to suggest his chance is far greater 2 years further down the line. 10th for driving distance at an average of 307 yards for the season-to-date is plenty long enough for this test and 5th for putting at The Open on his last start suggests that every part of his game is in a great place right now. We know he can play long, rain-softened tracks and his European Tour experience exposed him to a lot of bentgrass-based putting surfaces which can only help him here in Ohio. The fact that 20 of the last 22 Firestone champions had already tucked away a Major title completes the argument for me and in my view Koepka has a huge chance here this week. RESULT: T17
It's been a fascinating spell at the top of world golf in recent times with the elite players each seemingly taking it in turns to show what they can do before handing the baton to one of their peers. As the likes of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy have all reached the world number 1 spot before hitting the buffers over the past few years, Hideki Matsuyama has been steadily creeping up on them all with some scintillating golf at times. Having hit a career-high of 2nd in the OWGR after finishing runner-up to Koepka at the US Open, the 25 year-old is going to need to win a Major or two if he's going to find his way to the very top of the pile in this current climate, however that's certainly not out of the realms of possibility. Before he has another crack at a Major next week though he has a live chance here at Firestone as he looks to add a second WGC title to his collection having lapped the field when winning the HSBC Champions by a massive 7 strokes in China last autumn.
A fantastic long game has always been the Japanese sensation's biggest asset - 302 yards off the tee and Total Driving ranks of 21st in 2016 and 13th for the season-to-date doesn't tell a lie - however when Hideki is most dangerous is when the flat stick is cooperating too and he's in the middle of a purple patch in that respect right now which should spell danger to the rest of the field. 3rd for putting average at Erin Hills (1.63 putts per GIR), 15th at Portstewart (1.68) and 2nd at Birkdale (1.67) is the best prolonged spell we've seen from Matsuyama since he won an incredible 5 events in 9 global starts either side of Christmas. With confidence clearly growing once again with the putter it will only take a decent ball-striking week on a course which suits like Firestone for him to be knocking on the door once again. 21st on debut here in 2013 was followed by 12th a year later and although he's not improved on that since, he arrives here this year in far better overall form and with a whole cabinet full of trophies acquired since then. RESULT: Winner
A field of the highest quality this week may well produce a fairly obvious winner - indeed 3 of the past 4 winners have been single-figure chances before obliging - and with 2 decent bets on a couple of the shorter-priced players that doesn't leave a massive amount of room for manoeuvre. Having said that, with a half-sized field and some bookies still stretching to 6 places each-way, there's certainly scope for a few longer-priced players to make the frame.
First up Kevin Chappell who played so well here last year to finish 3rd on debut. Firestone is a notoriously difficult track to get right on a player's first attempt, so it was encouraging to see the 31 year-old fare so well ranking 2nd for Total Driving, Ball-Striking and also in the All-Round category when the 4 rounds were completed. The South Course fits well for the Californian which marries up to his 2016 Total Driving rank of 25th on Tour (27th for this season so far) and at 301 yards off the tee he's got the firepower for this test, that's for sure.
Solid on a variety of putting surfaces, it's Chappell's performance over the years on tougher tracks that catches the eye - he's notched two top-10 finishes at the US Open and finished 7th at Augusta earlier this year - and he also relishes a track with a bit of cut in the ground if the forecast storms do materialise. Kevin's maiden PGA Tour victory in Texas in April could well be the turning point in a career that had seen far too many 2nd place finishes not converted until that point and since then he's finished 4th at St Jude and 8th last week in Canada where he topped the putting charts over the course of the week. That performance last week was interesting as his attendance at Glen Abbey was a late decision so as to allow him better preparation for this week and next, however he was buoyed with the state of his game that saw him make the final group on Sunday; whilst he couldn't push on for the win last week, this week and next are the true targets and I'd expect him to feature here once again. RESULT: T13
Finally, another player who's got a recent win under his belt is Jason Dufner and the stoical figure is another player well-suited to the challenges of Firestone South. Not that his success at The Memorial Tournament was a walk in the park mind you - opening rounds of 65 on Thursday and Friday had seen the 40 year-old seemingly cruising to a 4th regular PGA Tour title before a Saturday round of 77 firmly slammed the brakes on. It's to Ohio-born Dufner's credit then that he rallied in the final round to beat Rickie Fowler and Anirban Lahiri by 3 strokes when many a player would have crumbled after such a damaging day at the office.
The former US PGA Champion is another who ranks well in the Total Driving category (20th in 2016; 25th in 2017 to date) and although his averages suggest a 291 yard driving distance, he can be sneaky long off the tee when he chooses to hit the ball at maximum capacity. Decent on long, tough and soft layouts and with finishes of 7th and 4th to his name here at Firestone from 4 attempts, the only aspect likely to hold Jason back here is the flat stick which can be pretty inconsistent if I'm being kind. When his ball-striking is on point then it's of less relevance - his aforementioned victory at Memorial came with a negative Strokes Gained Putting performance - however despite the frustrating misses he's actually putting far better in 2017 overall and ranks 40th on Tour for putting average. Now I'm not suggesting he'll be challenging Jordan Spieth to a putting contest any day soon, however with his ball-striking back on song at Birkdale (10th for driving accuracy, 3rd for GIR) on his way to a career-best 14th place finish at The Open, if he can put even an average shift together with the putter then he could contend for a place here or better. RESULT: T50