AKRON, Ohio (AP) — This is one farewell party Tiger Woods didn’t want to miss.
Firestone will host the world’s best players for the last time at the Bridgestone Invitational, and it wouldn’t be the same without Woods. He has won it eight times, a PGA Tour record for most victories on the same golf course. Woods didn’t finish out of the top 5 in his first 11 appearances on the venerable South Course, seven of them victories. It also was the last of his 79 victories on the PGA Tour in 2013, right before back problems started to surface.
Having played only four tournaments in 29 months because of four back surgeries, Woods returned in December at No. 1,199 in the world. He started his PGA Tour season in January at No. 647. His only hope was to move into the top 50 in the world after the British Open, or to win a tournament.
His tie for sixth in the British Open moved him to No. 50 on the button.
“I was just hoping to one, play the tour long enough to be able to get an opportunity,” Woods said Wednesday, his first time at Firestone in four years. “But I also had to play well to do it. … And within a year to get down to 50 I think is a pretty good accomplishment. But it also got me into this event.”
Bridgestone decided not to renew as title sponsor of the World Golf Championship, said to be an annual price tag of about $15 million. The company next year sponsors the Senior Players Championship at Firestone, while the WGC event moves to Memphis, Tennessee.
“This event has been very special to me over the years, and it’s sad to see it leave Firestone,” Woods said. “We certainly understand it. But for me, I’ve always had such great memories of this golf course.”
Where to start?
Was it the first victory in 1999 when he beat Phil Mickelson by one shot? The next year was even better when Woods raced to finish in the dark, made one last birdie to finish at 21-under par and won by 11 shots. He won in playoffs that lasted four holes against Stewart Cink (in 2006) and seven holes against Jim Furyk (in 2001). He won by eight shots in 2007 against Rory Sabbatini, who had said earlier in the year that Woods looked “beatable as ever.”
“There isn’t just one,” Woods said. “I’ve done it so many different ways.”
Ticket sales spiked when it was disclosed after the British Open that Woods reached No. 50 and would be back at Firestone. He became the face of this tournament over the last two decades, even through some rough patches when he was coping with scars on and off the golf course.
It would be a fitting conclusion at Firestone for Woods to walk off with yet another trophy, except it’s not that simple. He has yet to win this year, and while Woods used to own the short fields in these World Golf Championships with 18 titles, the competition is stiffer than ever.
Dustin Johnson affirmed his position at No. 1 in the world by winning the Canadian Open last week for his third PGA Tour title of the year. He won at Firestone two years ago and, like Woods, calls it one of his favorite stops of the year because it is big, tree-lined and doesn’t have many frills.
Rory McIlroy is coming off a runner-up finish in the British Open. He won at Firestone in 2014, sandwiched between victories in the British Open and PGA Championship. McIlroy has eight consecutive rounds in the 60s.
“I really think it is horses for courses. There are just courses that fit your eye better than some others,” McIlroy said. “Tiger has proved that with here, with Bay Hill, with Torrey Pines, with … well, actually, anywhere.”
Woods hasn’t been back to Firestone since 2014, when he hurt his back early in the final round. He hasn’t been eligible since then.
He raised expectations, certainly among his fans, with his strong showing at Carnoustie, where Woods had the lead for a couple of holes on Sunday, only to fall back with a double bogey. He wound up three shots behind, with the only consolation being a spot at Firestone.
“He’s going to play well this week,” Justin Thomas said. “This place is like Augusta for him. He could probably take two, three weeks off and he’s going to get it around here fine because he knows how to. He’s won here as many times as I’ve won everywhere in my career. I grew up watching him win a lot of tournaments here, hitting the shots in the dark. … So he’s going to be very, very comfortable here.”