Playing well leading up to a major championship doesn't necessarily forecast success, but the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is as good of a tuneup anyone competing in next week's PGA Championship could ask for.
Ahead of the year's final major, this is a high-stakes tournament worth more FedEx Cup points than usual and with a massive purse of $8.75 million—more than the $8 million in prize money at the year's final major.
Tiger Woods is a seven-time champion at Akron, Ohio's Firestone Country Club, though he hasn't won since 2009.
The man defending the trophy this time around is Keegan Bradley, who fired a phenomenal 64 in the final round a year ago in a come-from-behind victory by one shot.
Four players who finished in the top 10 in Akron went on to notch top 10s in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, including runaway winner Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman is looking to get his 2013 season back on track after missing the cut at the Open Championship.
Below is an outline of when the action at this World Golf Championship event takes place, where to catch it on TV and the best pairings to watch for in the first two rounds.
When: Thursday, August 1, to Sunday, August 4
Where: Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio
Tee Times: First group is off at 8:40 a.m. ET. For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit WorldGolfChampionships.com.
Purse: $8.75 million
FedEx Cup Points: 550
TV Schedule (h/t PGA.com)
Thursday: Golf Channel 2-6 p.m. ET
Friday: Golf Channel 2-6 p.m. ET
Saturday: Golf Channel 12-1:30 p.m. ET, CBS 2-6 p.m. ET
Sunday: Golf Channel 12-1:30 p.m. ET, CBS 2-6 p.m. ET
Groups to Watch
Tiger Woods and Hideki Matsuyama
Obviously, that strained elbow did have quite an effect on Woods' game. When he took time off between the U.S. Open and British Open to recover, it was clear when Woods came back that he wasn't slated for another decline.
At a venue that has been as kind to him as any in his career, Woods has a chance to generate invaluable momentum ahead of the PGA Championship with another solid result—or even a win—in Akron.
Woods has had an historic stranglehold on WGC events, demolishing the win total of any of his peers, per ESPN's Justin Ray:
Having said that, the intimidation factor Woods once possessed isn't as prominent, and the phenomenal accomplishments he achieved at such a young age have spurred golfers to develop at a more rapid rate.
Such is precisely the case with 21-year-old Matsuyama, who recently finished tied for 10th at the U.S. Open and tied for sixth at the Open Championship, with two other top 10s and a win on the Japan Tour sprinkled in.
Suddenly, Matsuyama is No. 33 in the world rankings and one of the game's fastest-rising stars who is hardly mentioned. Playing well alongside Woods this week is sure to help raise awareness about his talents.
Rory McIlroy and Brandt Snedeker
Despite holding the lead after two rounds at the RBC Canadian Open last week, Hunter Mahan withdrew to witness the birth of his firstborn child. That worked out well for Snedeker, who played magnificently in Round 3 with a 63 and then held on for a three-stroke victory at Glen Abbey.
After the win, the classy and funny Snedeker promised a gift for Mahan's daughter:
That triumph also got Snedeker his second trophy of 2013, allowing him to join some elite company:
There is absolutely no reason McIlroy shouldn't have at least two tournament wins this season given the caliber of player he is. However, things simply haven't worked out after a sensational previous campaign, highlighted by the eight-stroke trouncing of the field at the PGA.
McIlroy has missed three of his past five cuts and hasn't sniffed contention since May, but it was a tie for fifth at Firestone a year ago that sparked his late-season charge to win both major tour money lists.
Perhaps there will be similar magic there this time around. Otherwise, McIlroy could be in trouble as he looks to defend the Wanamaker Trophy without at least some sign of improvement.
Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose
The two most recent major victors are paired together in what should be a highly entertaining duo to watch.
At last year's Ryder Cup, Rose drained a slew of clutch putts in a comeback win over Mickelson in their singles match, which helped Team Europe rally to retain the prize.
No invested fan will soon forget how Mickelson mucked up another chance at a U.S. Open in finishing runner-up for an unprecedented sixth time. Still, Rose won at Merion due to his mettle and determination on a tough course and finally got the major monkey off his back.
Despite that crushing defeat, it has been a redemptive recent stretch for Mickelson, who won the Scottish Open before capturing the Claret Jug at Muirfield.
Putting has always been a strong part of Mickelson's game, but he's taken it to another level lately. Lefty remarked about what has made a difference:
The atmosphere should be quite different from the most notable of the past two encounters featuring these players, yet this pairing should be a dominant storyline regardless.
Luke Donald and Keegan Bradley
Major success continues to elude Donald. A badly missed cut at the British Open carried over to Canada, where the Englishman also failed to make the weekend.
It has to be wearing on the former world No. 1 at this point, especially when two of his peers in Adam Scott and Rose have broken through for the first time in golf's biggest tournaments this season.
Heck, Bradley won his first major at the 2011 PGA in his maiden start, and he defended it admirably last year by placing in a tie for third—albeit nine shots away from McIlroy's 72-hole total.
The young American star described how useful Firestone can be when preparing for a major championship:
If Donald can piece together his game and post an encouraging finish in Akron, maybe he'll take enough positivity to Oak Hill and be a factor. But first, the test of Firestone is going to be a grueling one, and at least he's guaranteed to make it to the weekend to get his competitive streak back in an ideal state.
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