Fans seeking high-quality golf to tide them over until the season's final major and the FedEx Cup playoffs need look no further than the 2014 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Tiger Woods is the defending champion for one, and Rory McIlroy just capped off his third major title at The Open Championship. There is also no 36-hole cut at this tournament, guaranteeing that all players in the elite field will play four rounds, barring an unforeseen withdrawal.
McIlroy's moxie and resilience amid difficult times in his young career have made him a likable personality—one of the few to deliver on the immense hype bestowed upon him. Comparisons to Woods will persist, but McIlroy has his work cut out to defeat Woods this week at a course Tiger has won at eight previous times.
Phil Mickelson is still looking for his first win of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, while a number of other golfers will be seeking a boost ahead of the PGA Championship, playoffs and Ryder Cup.
That leaves plenty to be contested this week at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, so let's get to when and where the coverage will be, including the top pairs to watch for the first two rounds.
Note: Statistics and video are courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise indicated.
When: Thursday, July 31, through Sunday, August 3
Where: Firestone Country Club (South Course) in Akron, Ohio
Tee Times: For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit WorldGolfChampionships.com.
Winner's Share: $1,530,000
FedEx Cup Points: 550
|Thursday, July 31||1:30-6:30 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Friday, August 1||1:30-6:30 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Saturday, August 2||12-1:30 p.m., 2-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, CBS|
|Sunday, August 3||12-1:30 p.m., 2-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, CBS|
Top Pairings to Watch
Rory McIlroy and Matt Kuchar
This is a fascinating duo in light of the contrasting styles that will be on display. McIlroy is a "tee it high, let it fly" kind of guy. He's young and powerful and has multiple majors on his resume.
On the other hand, Kuchar is a gritty veteran who is more consistent than McIlroy and always finds himself near the top of the leaderboard in the biggest events. However, he is advancing well into his career and is considered one of the best golfers never to have won a major.
Jason Sobel of Golf Channel mentioned how Kuchar and McIlroy could be in line for a Ryder Cup singles battle:
WGC pairings include some potential RC matchups: Fowler-Rose; Spieth-Dubuisson; Mickelson-Garcia; Kuchar-McIlroy; and yes, Woods-Kaymer.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) July 29, 2014
A final-round 65 at the RBC Canadian Open last week boosted Kuchar into a tie for fourth—yet another strong finish to cap off a tournament that saw Kuchar hit 68 percent of fairways and over 69 percent of greens in regulation.
Getting a strong result here could be invaluable for Kuchar as he prepares for the PGA Championship, but playing alongside a big hitter like McIlroy on a soft, long course may be a bit demoralizing.
McIlroy just has to avoid a letdown coming off his landmark victory at Royal Liverpool. That may be easier said than done, but at least the young star is in the right frame of mind:
High ball flight and tremendous length play to McIlroy's advantage at Firestone. The only problem is that he only has two par fives to capitalize on as scoring opportunities.
Ranked No. 1 in birdies-or-better conversion percentage, McIlroy just needs to keep his rounds alive with clutch par saves as he did at The Open Championship. If he manages to do that, the Northern Irish sensation could very well get two massive wins in a row.
Tiger Woods and Martin Kaymer
Past success isn't exactly anything Woods can draw on—at least to an extent. With just two tournaments under his belt since his return from back surgery, Woods' familiarity with Firestone gives him an unquestionable edge.
Check out this statistic from CBSSports.com's Kyle Porter:
Tiger Woods has faced 962 golfers at the Bridgestone Invitational since 1999 and beaten 819 of the (85%).— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) July 29, 2014
Now is the time for Woods to produce results, though. Otherwise, his season will be lost. That there isn't a 36-hole cut plays especially into Woods' hands. Given that he's lit it up and is often in the mid-60s when he wins in Akron, Woods can get hot at any time and vault into contention.
In Woods' immediate proximity to start the Bridgestone Invitational is Kaymer, another former world No. 1—albeit for not nearly as long as Woods' reign atop the rankings.
Kaymer has won two of the year's four biggest tournaments to date, holding on for a victory at The Players before a resounding eight-shot triumph in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
A discouraging trend has emerged for Kaymer since his second major win, though. A missed cut at the BMW International Open was followed by a tie for 12th at the Alstom Open de France, where he posted a 77 in the final round. An even uglier 79 capped off Kaymer's 70th-place Open Championship effort.
Woods declined sharply following a first-round 69 in the British Open. If he can recapture some of the ball-striking he had then, there's a great chance he can contend.
Accurate driving will be his biggest key, though Firestone isn't too penal when players misfire from the tee—part of the reason Woods has done so well there.
Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia
Who will win the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational?
"It’s kind of reignited my excitement, because my game just started to click," said Mickelson after the stellar finish, per GolfChannel.com's Ryan Lavner.
Speaking of which, that theme aptly applies to Garcia, who finished second at the British Open, stringing together a magnificent final round to push McIlroy down the stretch. Although it wasn't quite enough, Garcia hinted that he may indeed be capable of winning a major.
Always among the world's best from tee to green, putting and the short game in general have often prevented Garcia from accomplishing more. Once a bright talent as a teen who pushed Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, the Spaniard has largely underachieved.
But Garcia is in his mid-30s, where most golfers hit their prime. The aspect of his game that has long tormented him is coming around too, per TaylorMade Golf:
The young man who tied Garcia for second at Hoylake is Rickie Fowler, who also finished joint runner-up at the U.S. Open.
It will be interesting to see how Fowler fares for the rest of the season—whether those close calls at majors cause him to be discouraged or if he pushes onward and finally adds to his win total on the PGA Tour.
Fowler is playing with a major winner in Justin Rose, while another of American golf's brightest stars in Jordan Spieth will take to Firestone with crafty Frenchman Victor Dubuisson.
The first two days of the tournament are definitely going to provide a glimpse into the Ryder Cup but will also be a nice precursor to the action at Valhalla Golf Club and the PGA Championship.
Head-to-head matchups can stir the competitive juices, and players will be attacking the long Akron course as often as possible without having to worry about making the weekend.
In situations like these, watch out for the long-hitting young guns. Unless Woods shows flashes of his dominant form at Firestone and wins for a whopping ninth time, the top two contenders ought to be McIlroy and Fowler.
Whoever wins will receive a big boost ahead of the major finale. With an extra 50 FedEx Cup points on the line this week, too, it becomes all the more important for Woods to fare well in his bid to even qualify for the playoffs—or receive a USA Ryder Cup captain's pick from Tom Watson.