This week, the PGA Tour returns to Firestone Country Club for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the setting for what might be the most impressive decade of dominance in PGA Tour history.
Tiger Woods' 14 career major championships and 74 PGA Tour wins are the fruits of a career that has never failed to amaze. But his record in this tournament stands apart from anything the game has ever seen.
Woods' unparalleled ledger at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational defies all logic. It's simply jaw-dropping. For a decade, Tiger put an MMA-style chokehold on storied Firestone, leaving competitors flailing and mouths agape.
Between 1999 and 2009, Woods played the Bridgestone 10 times, missing the 2008 tournament with injury. In those 10 years, he won the tournament seven times. That's an acceptable percentage for free throws. For golf tournaments, it's insane.
The three years Woods failed to win, he finished 4th, T4 and T2. Over a 10-tounament span, that's an average finish of 1.7.
Let all that sink in for a minute. The WGC events assemble the greatest fields in world golf. The Firestone South course layout is a classic track that has hosted three PGA Championships. Woods has treated the tournament, the course and the field like he was Steve Williams and they were pesky photographers.
Over those 10 tournaments, from 1999-2009, Woods won $9,352,500. That number would rank sixth on an all-time list of single-season earnings, and Woods accumulated it in 10 tournaments. Over that span, Woods averaged 67.5 strokes per round on a course that Arnold Palmer once dubbed a "Monster."
Symptomatic of Tiger's recent decline, he failed to contend at the Bridgestone in 2010 and 2011, finishing T78 and T37, respectively, the last two years.
Consider this week a barometer for the state of Tiger's game. It's his best tournament. Heck, it's probably the best tournament for any player in the game's history.
If he's truly "back," he'll win it for the eighth time.
- by Rob Doster
Follow me on Twitter @AthlonDoster
Ernie Els' win in the British Open marked the fourth major championship of his remarkable career, and the third decade in which he's won a major. He's now tied with Phil Mickelson in career majors, which begs the question: Who's the second-best player of the Tiger Woods era in golf? A side-by-side comparison doesn't exactly clear things up, but let's try it anyway.
The Case for Mickelson
• 40 career PGA Tour wins, tied for ninth all time
• Three Masters wins, tied for fourth-most all time
• 33 top-10 finishes in major championships
• A record five second-place finishes at the U.S. Open
• Five runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour money list
• Multiple PGA Tour wins in 13 seasons
The Case for Els
• 19 PGA Tour wins, 27 European Tour wins
• Multiple Open wins on both sides of the Atlantic, joining Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Walter Hagen, Lee Trevino and Bobby Jones
• 33 top-10 finishes in major championships
• Two Orders of Merit for top money-winner on the European Tour
• The all-time money leader on the European Tour
• Unlike Mickelson, Els briefly ascended to the top spot in the World Golf Ranking on three separate occasions
Mickelson's go-for-broke style, one that has produced heroic shots like the pine straw 5-iron at The Masters, has earned him many fans, but it has also given rise to some truly tragic moments, like his 72nd hole meltdown at Winged Foot when that elusive first U.S. Open win was in his grasp. Even throughout the Woods era, Lefty has been the people's choice, a latter-day Arnold Palmer who has thrilled and disappointed his throngs of followers in equal measure. His legendary short game is pure magic, but his persistent wildness off the tee is identifiable for duffers everywhere. Mickelson's battle with arthritis and wife Amy's battle with breast cancer have added to his everyman appeal.
Els' effortless game gives off a totally different vibe. His smooth, syrupy swing is the game's gold standard, in a class all time with Sam Snead's. His relatable struggles with the putter also endear him to his legion of fans, and his son's battle with autism has linked him to a worthy cause.
Both guys exude class, although there are persistent whispers among Tour insiders that Lefty isn't all that popular with his fellow players (FIGJAM, anyone?).
It's close, but we'll go with Mickelson. His three wins in the world's most prestigious tournament — one of which denied Els a lone Masters win — nudge him slightly ahead of Els' multiple Open wins. Lefty hasn't distinguished himself in Ryder Cup play, but he has outshined Els at the Presidents Cup, giving him an edge in international team competition. Lefty has come close more often in majors, with 18 top-3 finishes to Els' 14.
Els has probably had a greater worldwide impact, but Mickelson has been the slightly better player.
What do you think?
So did Ernie Els win it? Or did Adam Scott lose it? Both. The agony and the ecstasy of golf were on full display at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and when it was over, Els had his second Claret Jug and fourth major, and Scott had first-hand knowledge of what it feels like to be Greg Norman. Or Jason Dufner.
Tiger Woods made headlines this week when he uttered the word "unplayable" in reference to some of the rough at Royal Lytham. So how tough is the course? An unusual amount of rain — even for England — has added extra thickness and gnarliness to the deep stuff, and when you throw in the penal pot bunkers, players will need an extra level of precision, particularly from the tee. Bottom line: As one writer described it, Royal Lytham is a beast, but a just beast, and will produce a worthy champion.
How will the marquee group perform?
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For the first two rounds, Tiger Woods (No. 4 in the world) will be playing with Justin Rose (No. 9) and Sergio Garcia (No. 23). Tiger has called the British Open his favorite major, and there's no doubt that he wants this tournament desperately, having gone more than four years without a major title. But Sergio is the wild card. His game has shown signs of life — he hasn't missed a cut in more than a year — and the British Open has historically been his best major (seven top 10s, including a second). Maybe the golf gods will finally smile on him. Doubtful, but possible.
Will Duval make the cut?
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The last time the Open Championship came to Royal Lytham & St Annes, David Duval won the first and last major championship of his career. For a guy who was once the No. 1 player in the world, that lone major title seems a long time ago. The winner of the 1999 Players Championship, Duval ascended to the No. 1 ranking, then two years later won the British Open at Royal Lytham. That happens to be the last of his 13 PGA Tour titles. Duval will be at Royal Lytham again, a perk of hoisting the Claret Jug. But will he even make the cut? This season alone, Duval has missed 10 cuts in 13 events; in Tiger Woods' entire career, Woods has missed nine. Signs for Duval aren't trending in the right direction.
Will an Englishman finally win?
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The last Englishman to kiss the Claret Jug: Nick Faldo, in 1992. Coming into this year's Open, two of the top three golfers in the World Golf Rankings will carry the banner of St. George's Cross, and they'll feel the considerable weight of their countrymen's expectations. World No. 1 Luke Donald will be feeling the most pressure; his lack of success in majors, particularly his nation's championship (he has one top 10 in 11 appearances and missed the cut last year), has fans questioning his major mettle. Lee Westwood, meanwhile, has many more close calls on his resume, but like Donald, he missed the cut at the Open in 2011.
Who'll kiss the jug on Sunday?
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It's tempting to pick a wild card, like Dustin Johnson, who was a wayward 4-iron from challenging for the win last year; Zach Johnson, the game's best putter right now; or Rickie Fowler, who has the talent and also has that elusive first win under his belt. Then there are the resurgent veterans, like Padraig Harrington; the perennial short-listers, like Phil Mickelson; and those seeking that career-defining win, like Westwood, Donald, Garcia, Steve Stricker, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter. But we'll go with the bookmakers' choice and pick Tiger, who is taking a thoughtful, veteran approach this week and looks ready to return the major winner's circle.
Webb Simpson is our national champion, and contrary to the naysayers who'll claim he backed into it, a 68-68 weekend on one of the toughest golf courses in U.S. Open history is the definition of earning it.
Simpson, who was six shots off the lead when Saturday dawned, was the only player to break par in both of the final two rounds on his way to posting a 1-over 281, although he had to sweat out a birdie putt on 18 by Graeme McDowell before claiming his third career PGA Tour win and first major championship. The 26-year-old Simpson was playing in only his second U.S. Open, and at a tournament where par is gold, it took a delicate par save on 18 to seal the win. Simpson chipped to four feet from a gnarly greenside lie, then coaxed in a ticklish slider to close his 68.
McDowell and playing partner Jim Furyk both had plenty of golf left to play when Simpson posted his number, and while McDowell was able to get close with a birdie at 17 and a makeable birdie look at 18, Furyk squandered what might prove to be his last best chance to win a second major, failing to make a birdie during his final-round 74 and bogeying three of his final six holes.
And thus ends Northern Ireland's two-year stranglehold on America's championship; McDowell won at Pebble Beach two years ago, and Rory McIlroy dominated at Congressional in 2011.
Some proclaimed that the tournament was over after Tiger Woods' 69-70 start gave him a share of the 36-hole lead. Thankfully, I wasn't one of them — but I thought it. Unfortunately, Tiger's comeback remains a work in progress. His 75-73 weekend is one of the bitterest disappointments of his career, but Olympic Club's fearsome sextet of opening holes deserve much of the credit. Tiger bogeyed three of the first six on Saturday on his way to a crushing 75, and he played the opening six holes at 6-over on Sunday. For the tournament, the field was more than 1,000 strokes over par on holes 1-6. Brutal.
Tiger's hobbled win at Torrey Pines was epic from start to finish, but his birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Rocco Mediate was a career-defining moment.
Tiger Woods, 2000
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Tiger dismantled Pebble Beach, beating the world's best by 15 shots in the greatest performance of his career — or anyone else's for that matter.
Payne Stewart, 1999
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This moment was so iconic, they made a statue out of it that stands today at Pinehurst near the 18th green. Four months after Stewart's greatest triumph, he was dead, the victim of a tragic lear jet accident.
Corey Pavin, 1995
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Pavin's heroic 4-wood to the 72nd hole clinched his U.S. Open win over Greg Norman, the only major of Pavin's career but one of countless heartbreaks for Norman.
Tom Watson, 1982
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Watson snatched the 1982 Open at Pebble Beach away from Jack Nicklaus with this improbable chip-in at 17 from gnarly rough. A contender for the greatest shot in major championship history,
Rory McIlroy—Let's start with the defending champion. Yes, he's been hit or miss this year, and no one has successfully defended a U.S. Open title since Curtis Strange in 1989. But the kid has all the necessary talent and poise, and his recent work paid off with a contending performance in Memphis that was derailed by one swing. He'll put up a credible title defense.
Tiger Woods—We might as well stipulate that Tiger's the favorite heading into this year's Open. When we last saw him, he was giving us glimpses of vintage Tiger, winning the Memorial with what Jack Nicklaus called possibly the greatest shot he had ever seen. Woods renews his pursuit of Nicklaus' 18 majors in the same state where he won his last, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Tiger will be eager to outshine his playing partners in rounds 1 and 2 — Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.
Phil Mickelson—Speaking of Lefty, if we based this solely on desire, the tournament's over before it starts. Mickelson wants this tournament more than any other, having posted a record five runner-up finishes at our national championship. We're tempted to think this tournament owes him one, but he was last seen withdrawing from the Memorial citing fatigue, a somewhat troubling red flag. Tiger seems to bring out the best in him, so he could find himself in contention heading to the weekend.
Lee Westwood—The consensus Best Player Without a Major, Westwood has a remarkable seven top-3 finishes in majors since 2008, including a T3 at the Open last year. He also had a T7 at the Open in 1998, proving that he knows his way around Olympic. He's coming off one of the most dominant performances of his career, a five-shot win on the European Tour. It just might be his time.
Luke Donald—No. 1 in the world but unloved and unappreciated, Donald could silence his doubters once and for all at Olympic. Doesn't seem likely, though — he's never posted a top 10 at a U.S. Open, and his lack of length would seem to rule him out at a monster track like Olympic. Still, he's likely to keep it in the fairway, and he's a good enough putter to hang around.
Dustin Johnson—You might think it's premature to include DJ on this list so soon after a prolonged injury absence. But he was so good on a tough track in Memphis, and he's so crazy long off the tee, that it wouldn't surprise us to see him on the leaderboard on Sunday. But winning's another matter; he's got some mental hurdles to clear after coming agonizingly close in other majors.
Matt Kuchar—Kooch had a T3 at The Masters, and he finished T14 in the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic as an amateur. His ballstriking is as good as anyone's; he's third in scoring on Tour and 10th in greens in regulation. If he can get some putts to drop, he'll contend.
Bubba Watson—A Bubba Slam? Is it conceivable? Not really, but neither was a Watson win at Augusta (Bubba, not Tom). He'll show up at Olympic, pink driver in tow, ready to attack one of the toughest tracks in major championship history and steal some of the spotlight from playing partners Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. If nothing else, it'll be entertaining.