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.
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.
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:
- 2017: Matsuyama (-16). 329 yards (12th), 51.8% fairways (27th), 75.0% greens in regulation (1st), 66.7% scrambling (15th), 1.65 putts per GIR (8th).
- 2016: D Johnson (-6). 341 yards (2nd), 57.1 fairways (4th), 62.5% greens in regulation (5th), 63.0% scrambling (19th), 1.64 putts per GIR (2nd).
- 2015: Lowry (-11). 325 yards (21st), 46.4 fairways (37th), 65.3% greens in regulation (8th), 72.0% scrambling (12th), 1.68 putts per FIR (9th).
- 2014: McIlroy (-15). 335 yards (1st), 60.7% fairways (12th), 79.2% greens in regulation (1st), 73.3% scrambling (7th), 1.70 putts per GIR (14th).
- 2013: Woods (-15). 315 yards (6th), 62.5% fairways (13th), 73.6% greens in regulation (2nd), 73.7% scrambling (4th), 1.68 putts per GIR (5th).
- 2012: Bradley (-13). 320 yards (23rd), 62.5% fairways (7th), 68.1% greens in regulation (12th), 60.9% scrambling (14th), 1.57 putts per GIR (1st).
- 2011: Scott (-17). 320 yards (6th), 64.3% fairways (15th), 70.8% greens in regulation (9th), 81.0% scrambling (2nd), 1.63 putts per GIR (4th).
- 2010: Mahan (-12). 306 yards (21st), 60.7% fairways (30th), 69.4% greens in regulation (10th), 63.6% scrambling (13th), 1.67 putts per GIR (1st).
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:
- Other than Tiger Woods, nobody has won this event at their first attempt.
- At 7,400 yards for its par of 70, you’ll need to have at the very least moderate length off the tee to compete around here.
- Mahan in 2010, Scott in 2011, Bradley in 2012, Woods in 2013 and Rory McIlroy in 2014 were all in great nick from off the tee and all finished their respective seasons towards the very top of the total driving category on the PGA Tour. Shane Lowry was a European Tour player when he arrived in Akron in 2015, however he had produced top-5 Total Driving performances on three of his previous six appearances. Dustin Johnson was in the form of his life and had topped the Total Driving category on his previous two starts before doing the same when winning here in 2016. Hideki Matsuyama is an outstanding tee-to-green exponent when on his game and he ranked 13th for the Total Driving category when he arrived here at Akron 12 months ago – he went on to tear the field to shreds courtesy of a closing round of 61.
- Every winner since 2000 had either a win or at least 1 top-6 finish on their respective Tour in the season to date.
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.
- 2017: Matsuyama: 45/51/11/22/45/2/14/14
- 2016: D Johnson: 5/3/4/28/13/3/5/1
- 2015: Lowry: 34/MC/6/43/9/29/31/MC
- 2014: McIlroy: 8/6/1/15/23/MC/14/1
- 2013: Woods: 37/1/1/4/1/65/32/6
- 2012: Bradley: 35/24/MC/68/29/MC/46/34
- 2011: Scott: 6/2/23/MC/65/MC/3/25
- 2010: Mahan: 17/50/MC/MC/MC/MC/37/17
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.
- 2017: Matsuyama: 21/12/37/42
- 2016: D Johnson: 22/15/48/19/33/53
- 2015: Lowry: 77/48
- 2014: McIlroy: 68/9/6/5/27
- 2013: Woods: 1/1/1/4/2/1/1/1/1/78/37/8
- 2012: Bradley: 15
- 2011: Scott: 64/55/36/10/36/56/51/9
- 2010: Mahan: 22/10/4
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: