Golf’s three most recognizable stars and the sport’s top-ranked players arrived at Firestone Golf Club this week for the WGC—Bridgestone Invitational with plenty on the line, but for very different reasons.
Phil Mickelson will look to avoid a hangover from his recent British Open triumph and continue his spectacular summer by adding a another victory to his list of recent firsts.
Tiger Woods needs to recharge his battery in advance of next week's PGA Championship, his last opportunity this year to win a major since 2008. Where better to do that than a layout where he has won an amazing seven times since 1999?
For Rory McIlroy, the Bridgestone represents a final chance to get his house in order before defending his PGA Championship title at Oak Hill Country Club.
It’s a defense that at the moment has little expectations considering how poorly McIlroy has played this summer. An unexpectedly strong showing this week would certainly change that.
While the quality of their performances remains to be seen, it's a certainty that the trio will claim plenty of headlines.
Mickelson Looks to Continue Strong Play
Woods is still the biggest name in golf, but there’s no denying that Mickelson is the toast of the sport and its hottest player.
Lefty has spent the past month doing what few thought he could and in the process has surged to No. 2 in the world rankings and within earshot of the top spot in the FedEx Cup standings.
Earlier this month Mickelson won in Great Britain for the first time in his hall of fame career at the Scottish Open. A week later he won his first British Open, leaving him only a U.S. Open shy of a career grand slam.
Before turning his attention to claiming a second PGA Championship and a sixth major, Mickelson will attempt to conquer the beast that is Firestone Golf Club for the first time since 1996, when he won the NEC World Series of Golf.
In the 14-year history of this World Golf Championship event, Mickelson owns four top-10s, including a runner-up finish to Woods in 1999, the first year the event replaced the popular World Series of Golf.
Despite those strong finishes, a Bridgestone victory is still lacking on Lefty’s resume. But considering the impressive list of firsts Mickelson has achieved this summer, he appears well positioned to change this.
Victory on Sunday will add to an amazing two-month run for one of the sport's most popular players and continue building momentum towards the PGA Championship.
Tiger Seeks Renewed Momentum at Firestone Heading to PGA Championship
After winning four PGA Tour events before mid-May for the first time in his career, it looked as if 2013 would be the season in which Woods not only returned to the top of his sport but also claimed that elusive 15th major.
Woods is an unhappy one-for-two in that equation.
He regained top ranking from McIlroy back in March, but that major victory has not materialized, putting a significant damper on an otherwise terrific season.
Woods has certainly had his moments this year, headlined by a second career victory at the Players Championship back in May. The talk this week, however, has nothing to do with his PGA Tour victories and everything to do with his failure to win a major this season.
Doubts as to whether Woods will win another major are growing and at the same time whispers about his poor weekend performances in golf’s biggest events are becoming soft roars.
Those storylines are attached to Woods ahead of a tournament he hasn't won since 2009, and they will certainly travel with him to Oak Hill no matter how he plays.
Yet if Woods can capture his eighth career victory at Firestone, the criticism and questions will be softened and his confidence refueled at just the right time.
There’s no doubt Woods has lost significant momentum after his Players Championship victory, due in large part to a strained elbow suffered during that triumph.
He struggled at the Memorial Tournament and several weeks later was a complete non-factor at the U.S. Open, in which he posted his worst-ever major performance as a professional.
Things appeared better the British Open until he faded over the final 20 holes after sharing the lead late in the third round with Lee Westwood.
Woods fired a final-round 74 as Mickelson stormed past him and the rest of the leaders to claim the Claret Jug.
But Woods is back in his comfort zone this week, and desperately needs a strong showing to regain his momentum and confidence. If he fails at the PGA Championship, there’s little else he can do to avoid 2013 from being a disappointment.
Did McIlroy Hit Bottom at Muirfield or is There Further to Fall?
Mickelson is looking to continue his stellar play, Woods is looking to regain his after a short dip.
McIlroy, however, is seeking to find any semblance of the significant talent he displayed just one year ago in winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, his second major title before his mid-20s.
The McIlroy of Kiawah Island last August and the McIlroy of today appear to have little in common. Coming off a missed cut at the British Open, which followed a similar result at the Irish Open, McIlroy appears frustrated, sullen and confused.
The former World No. 1 is without a victory in almost one calendar year, struggling with his mental focus, hearing voices of criticism all around him and showing little sign of turning things around.
His British Open performance was a new low of a forgettable season. He opened with an eight-over 79 and ultimately missed the cut by four shots at 12-over.
The performance was par for the course in his majors this year, while McIlroy is now a combined 28-over in 10 championship rounds after a much-publicized switch from Titleist to Nike this past January.
Although McIlroy has managed four top-10s on the 2013 PGA Tour, they have been overshadowed by his walking off the course at the Honda Classic and bending a club in frustration during the final round of the U.S. Open. He also has been criticized for lacking focus and commitment by the likes of Nick Faldo and Jack Nicklaus.
Those issues, combined with poor play and poor transition in clubs, have put enormous pressure on the 24-year-old. Given that rather bleak reality, McIlroy desperately needs a strong showing to get himself teed up for Oak Hill.
It would be a surprise to see McIlroy scratch together the game and confidence his needs to contend. It's an entirely different story for Woods and Mickelson, who are joint favourites this week.
All three have a lot riding on their performances as they look ahead to the season's final major.