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Firestone Country Club hosts the WGC Bridgestone Invitational for the last time this week and what an event we have in store with all of the World's elite in attendance. As part of the extensive schedule changes that we'll see on the PGA Tour in 2019, this event will become the 'FedEx St Jude Invitational' next year and will immediately follow the Open Championship as the season gets squashed into the first 8 months of the year. After an outstanding Open Championship a little over a week ago and with the final Major of the season starting next Thursday, we're in for another treat this week I'm sure.
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 | Combined Current Form/Event Form Stats.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2017: Hideki Matsuyama, 20/1; 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 8 years based on the 2017 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Akron, Ohio is here. Sunshine and thundery showers have been the order of the day in the lead up to this year's event and more of the same is expected during the 4 days of play. At the time of writing Friday carries the strongest risk of disruption to play, however either side of any electrical activity it should be warm and sunny with generally light winds and temperatures reaching the mid-80s Fahrenheit each day.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 8 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 8 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. In addition, all 8 players also ranked inside the top-20 for scrambling on the week. So long, high GIR and a decent week on and around the greens seems to be the order of the day.
Over those 8 renewals, the average birdie haul of the eventual winner has been around 20 on the week (Matsuyama produced 23 birdies and an eagle last year to win by 5 strokes) - 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 in order to be in with a sniff on Sunday afternoon.
There are some rock solid
trends from recent years to consider in this event when formulating a shortlist:
Incoming Form: Three of the last five 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 in 2016.
Last year's winner Hideki Matsuyama
was a little longer priced at 20/1, however with 5 global titles won in
less than 12 months prior to his success here it was fair to say that he
was another in-form player - particularly as he'd also recorded his best
finish at a Major at Erin Hills a few weeks before.
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.
Incoming Form: Three of the last five 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 in 2016.
Last year's winner Hideki Matsuyama was a little longer priced at 20/1, however with 5 global titles won in less than 12 months prior to his success here it was fair to say that he was another in-form player - particularly as he'd also recorded his best finish at a Major at Erin Hills a few weeks before.
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 23 Firestone winners were already Major champions, however again that's skewed by the dominance of Woods and in Mahan, Lowry and Matsuayama you could also infer that the tide has changed a little in that respect.
After failing to make the weekend at Carnoustie, World No.1 Dustin Johnson once again reminded us how ruthless a winner he is last weekend by capturing the RBC Canadian Open and extending his lead at the top of the OWGR. DJ has won this event here at Firestone in the past off the back of a win in his previous event - albeit with a week in between with the Olympics-affected schedule in 2016 - and the bookies are taking no chances that he makes it another personal double here this week with any lingering 8/1 about him already gone by Monday afternoon. Tiger Woods is also being backed heavily given his outstanding course form and his contending performance at The Open, however as ever in this game there are strong cases that can be made for any number of players this week.
My selections are as follows:
With the exception of Dustin Johnson who made amends for his missed cut at Carnoustie by winning in Canada over the weekend, most of the remaining cast from the very top of the final Open Championship leaderboard have had a few days to reflect on proceedings. Golf's newest Major Champion Francesco Molinari has been chalked up as a 28/1 chance this week despite some blistering form of late that's seen him win 3 out of last 6 starts and leapfrog a number of his peers up to a heady 6th in the world. A best of 15th place here in Ohio from 7 starts, coupled with an expected post-Major hangover - has seen the bookies take a generous view of the Italian, however how he reacts after his triumph in Scotland remains to be seen.
Tiger Woods will likely go off as second favourite to Dustin Johnson this week after his efforts in Angus and if ever there's a venue that's likely to see the golfing legend get back to winning ways then it's here at Firestone where he's been so prolific over the years, however having failed to convert a decent opportunity at The Open and eventually finishing 6th, there's still a question-mark over backing him at such a relatively short price in my view. Of the 4 players who shared the runner-up accolade, I'd expect Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy to be more prominent this week than Kevin Kisner, however at more than 3 times the price of the European pair I'm backing Xander Schauffele who continues to impress at the biggest events that our sport has to offer.
Starting the final day of The Open at 9-under and in a share of the lead, it's to the 24 year-old's great credit that he didn't buckle after a stretch of bogey-bogey-double had seemingly pulled the rug from beneath his feet. The California native is made of sterner stuff than most though and birdies on the 10th and 14th once again gave him a chance all the way up the 17th where a bogey essentially sealed the deal for Molinari. That's 3 top-6 finishes from 6 attempts at a Major so far for Xander though and if we couple that with top-20 finishes at WGC level in both this event and the WGC Mexico Championship, as well as his Tour Championship victory, then it's clear to me that we have a huge talent on our hands.
That top 20 finish here 12 months ago on his Firestone Debut featured progressive rounds of 70/69/69/68 as he got to grips with his surroundings and with a little more luck on the par-5s he could have ended up far closer to the top of the leaderboard. Encouraging signs and with a year's worth of experience under his belt since that point in time and his underlying form in great shape despite a couple of disappointing final rounds at both The Greenbrier and The Open, I'd expect him to improve significantly on that effort this time around. Long and aggressive from off the tee and sitting inside the top-50 for Total Driving for the season-to-date, Shauffele has ranked inside the top-8 for Total Driving on 3 of his last 4 starts including the Open Championship and US Open where he's rewarded each-way backers on both occasions overall. 2nd at The Players Championship in elite company is also encouraging and for me there's far more value in backing him each way here than taking one of the market leaders at a fraction of the price on offer.
Another player who was right in the mix at Carnoustie was Kevin Chappell and having had a week to reflect on his 6th place finish, I suspect he'll take all the positives from that effort and push on once again on a Firestone track that he's taken to very nicely indeed from his two attempts. Early bogeys at the 1st and 6th dampened the enthusiasm of the 32 year-old on Open Championship Sunday and despite some brief hope on the 10th hole, the final nail was hammered well and truly into the coffin on the 17th as he made double bogey from the gorse. A positive performance nevertheless and a 4th Major Championship finish recorded in an increasingly impressive CV that surprisingly still only contains the single victory in Texas last year.
Two attempts at Firestone South have yielded 3rd in 2016 and 13th last year, both of which came after over-par opening rounds, and if the Californian can start a little better this week then perhaps he'll stand a chance of bettering both of those efforts. He certainly has the raw credentials to contend around these parts with his powerful driving (17th on Tour for the season to date, 308.4 yards average) and at 11th for Total Driving he has the numbers I'm looking for here this week.
A couple of 3-figure outsiders to complete my team this week. Gary Woodland is one of those frustrating types who has an incredibly strong tee-to-green game which is so often let down by the putter, however this isn't a putting contest here at Akron and there's just enough encouragement from a 22nd place finish at last week's Canadian Open and a good couple of rounds at the US Open last month to suggest that he can put up a decent performance at a long price. The 34 year-old grabbed his 3rd PGA Tour victory earlier this season in Phoenix - notable potentially as last year's winner Hideki Matsuyama also won in Phoenix before capturing this title 12 months ago - and in terms of biorhythms he's also found success in this week of the year back in 2013 at the Reno-Tahoe Open. 10th for Driving Distance for the season to date and 8th for Total Driving are key statistics that I like and he also has a top-20 finish here to his name in 2014 where he was 10th heading into the final day.
Finally I'm taking a punt on Brendan Steele who fits the mould once again for me this week. I'll bend my top-20 Firestone criteria ever so slightly given the price on offer - the 35 year-old finished 24th here last year after a poor opening round of 73 - and despite some seemingly indifferent form on the face of it, I think there's enough bubbling away under the surface following an opening round of 68 at Carnoustie and a Total Driving rank of 1st in the field which is no mean feat. The 3-time PGA Tour winner ranks 11th for Driving Distance on the PGA Tour this season which puts him very much in the same bracket as my other 3 selections and at 25th for Total Driving for the season to date he, like my other picks, has the raw credentials that I'm looking for this week.
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