WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: Course Insight
View from inside the 16th hole at Firestone
The roll call of champions at the World Golf Championships-WGC Bridgestone Invitational rings out like golf royalty. Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, and Dustin Johnson have all raised the Gary Player Cup in triumph at Firestone Country Club South. It’s a tournament, and by extension, a golf course that’s defined by the game’s elite. And this week in Akron, Ohio 28 of the top-30 players in the FedEx Cup and every player in the Official World Golf Ranking top-50 will compete on Firestone’s demanding par-70, 7,400-yard layout in the 40th of 47 events on the PGA Tour this year.
Firestone is a great test of golf because it’s all about ball-striking here. There’s nothing tricked up about the layout and you’ll rarely see awkward bounces or bad breaks. It’s designed to show players where they should hit the ball on every hole, it encourages working the ball one way or another, and it penalizes impatient players who try to force a low score. Sloping fairways are heavily tree-lined, straightaway (with 16 of the 18 holes running north and south), and frightfully narrow placing a huge premium on driving accuracy. Greens are small, undulating, and fast, with many elevated and fronted by nests of menacing bunkers.
Very little has changed about the course since the 1960s when The Big Three (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player) used to play here. Firestone is a traditional course with time-honored virtues that make it one of the game’s most challenging layouts no matter the generation. This year, however, the stone bridge on No. 16 will be dedicated as “The Arnold Palmer Bridge,” and a plaque will be placed on the floor to honor Palmer. The King dubbed the 16th hole “The Monster” after recording a triple-bogey eight during the 1960 PGA Championship. Arnie also won three times in his career at Firestone making this tribute especially fitting.
Approach view from behind the 18th hole at Firestone
Only three of the last 14 champions at Firestone have shot better than 12-under par, and the average winning score over the past decade is just 11.9-under. There simply aren’t many genuine birdie opportunities out here, but No. 2 (the “other” par-5) is definitely one of them. Last year the 526-yard, 2nd hole surrendered 86 birdies and dished out just 21 bogies or worse making it the easiest hole on the course. Players will need to be careful of overhanging tree branches off the tee on this slight, dogleg-left hole, and a high, right-to-left ball flight over the trees is preferred. On approach, a series of four bunkers protect an undulating green that features a false front with trees flanking left and right. Big hitters will have no problem reaching in two, but second shots will still need to come in high to hold the green.
Firestone has many great par-4s and the straightaway, 494-yard, par-4, 9th is arguably also the toughest. No. 9 doesn’t necessarily look like a hole you’d lose sleep over, but last year it played as the most difficult on the course giving up only 20 birdies while handing out 77 bogies or worse. The hole plays downhill into a left-to-right sloping fairway with a 30-foot drop in elevation, and the primary trouble off the tee is one bunker on the left and two on the right at about 270-290 yards out that have to be avoided. There are also trees on the right side which come into play to further punish wayward drives. On approach, the small elevated green is protected by one large bunker on the left and two smaller ones on the right, and slopes severely from back to front always making it a challenge.
Any discussion about Firestone is always going to include its finishing holes, and on the long, 221-yard, par-3, 15th players usually get what they deserve. Accurate club selection and a precise tee shot is required on this hole to find the putting surface. The green is deep but extremely narrow, and two bunkers guard the left and right sides making it a very challenging par-3. Most players would take four par-3s here every time. Last year, No. 15 recorded 22 birdies and 50 bogies or worse making it the 7th hardest hole on the course.
GPS view of Firestone’s monster 16th hole from 18Birdies Caddy+
The 667-yard, par-5, 16th has always been one of the longest par-5s on Tour and is Firestone’s signature hole. Over the years a few players have knocked it on in two, but this is generally going to be a three-shot hole for everyone. Bunkers come into play off the tee at about 280-290 yards and you have to find the fairway to avoid carnage on the second shot. “The Monster” tempts players into making sure they hit no more than a sand wedge into the green by hitting their second shot as far as possible, but this brings into play water in the front of the green and a creek to the right. Front-right pin locations can be maddening and require deft spin control to hold the green and avoid a watery grave. No. 16 played as the fourth most difficult hole last year surrendering only 36 birdies while dishing out 60 bogies or worse.
Players To Watch
As with any week, you have to start with World No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson. Johnson looks like he’s turning the corner from two consecutive missed cuts and a disappointing T-54 finish at The Open after a bounce-back last week at the RBC Canadian Open that put him in contention on Sunday. DJ can become the first player to win three World Golf Championships in the same year if he repeats this week, but I’m not sure he’s back in early-season form just yet. DJ has the ability to overpower Firestone like he did last year, but unlike 2016, this year DJ is hitting the ball wildly off the tee, and is ranked 175th on Tour in Driving Accuracy. Johnson’s ranked 3rd on Tour in Greens In Regulation, but missing the fairways at Firestone is extremely penal, and even with his short game coming around that won’t be enough for him to crack the top-10. Expect Johnson to finish outside the top-20.
OWGR notwithstanding, Jordan Spieth is arguably the best player in the world right now. Spieth has won his last two consecutive starts, including his epic win at Royal Birkdale. He’s the betting favorite to win next week at the PGA Championship and become the youngest player own all four major titles. And Spieth is first on Tour in Birdie Average, second in Greens In Regulation, and uh-oh, his putting is starting to look like it did in 2015. Spieth finished T-3 here last year and there’s nothing to indicate anything will slow down the Spieth train. I wonder if he might be looking ahead just a little however to next week at Quail Hollow, and that’s the only reason I’m not picking him to win this week. Still, expect Jordan to add another top-10 finish to his already stellar eight top-10s (including three wins, one runner-up, and two third-place finishes) this season and finish inside the top-5.
The one shot you truly need to win at Firestone is the driver, and Rory McIlroy looks like he’s finally figured out the big stick. After struggling most of the year from the tee, McIlroy put together two of his finest performances with the driver at The Travelers and The Open. Perhaps most important for Rory, however, is his renewed belief in himself. Rory’s still up-and-down with the putter, and his short game hasn’t been sharp consistently, but you just get that feeling that Rory is about to go Meta-Rory at any moment. If McIlroy gets off to a fast start that’s going to lift up his entire game, and could even propel him to a dominating wire-to-wire victory. Look for Rory to pick up his first win of the season this week and set up a Spieth-McIlroy showdown at Quail Hollow that could be one for the ages.