The history of the Bridgestone Invitational may embody the narrative of golf in the 21st century more than any other tournament on the calendar: The dominance of Eldrick Tont “Tiger” Woods. Along with Muirfield Country Club a couple hours South, Firestone Country Club served as an annual stage for Tiger’s evolution from amateur swashbuckler to GOAT that pushed golf to the front of the national sports discussion, inspired an entire generation of free-swinging young guns, and as outlined by Big Randy, made fellow professionals Brinks trucks full of cash.
If you look closely, you can see Chucky Three Sticks driving and Justin Leonard riding shotgun (not seen: Tiger in a Buick up ahead).
From 1999 through 2009 there isn’t a course Tiger dominated more often or more effortlessly than the South Course at Firestone. It’s fitting that in the personal and professional turbulence of ’09 with his greatness and his imperfection coming to a head, this week’s event provided the last vintage Tiger performance we’ve seen and maybe the worst as well. The History of the Bridgestone is a history of Big Cat’s dominance and downfall over a full decade.
Full list of Memorial Tournament/WGC-Bridgestone winners in same year:
1999 Tiger Woods
2000 Tiger Woods
2001 Tiger Woods
2009 Tiger Woods
— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelESPN) June 30, 2016
The Bridgestone Invitational is part of the four-tournament World Golf Championships, a group of big-money events that function basically as the Golden Globes to the major’s Oscars. The fields are smaller (typically 70-80), the qualification rules are major-esque (major worldwide tournament winners, top 50 OWGR, recent Ryder/Presidents Cup players), and the rewards for winning one are sweet (huge cash and a three-year PGA Tour exemption). This week’s event takes place at the 7,400-yard par 70, South Course at Firestone, a course nicknamed “The Monster” by Arnold Palmer when describing the lengthy par-5 16th hole.
The Bridgestone came into being in 1999 as the WGC-NEC Invitational from the start, Tiger was in charge. He sandwiched two close victories (one shot over Lefty in ’99 and a three-way playoff in ’01) around an avian massacre in 2000 that sent the area into an ecological fallout. Per Kyle Porter, Tiger’s 2000 season was his best and saw him post tournament records in Akron for aggregate low score (259) and lowest score to par (-21) as he blitzed the field by 11 shots and provided us all with this signature shot in the dark:
Over the next eight years, Tiger won four more times on ‘The Monster’ and only finished outside the top 10 once. The relationship between Tiger and Firestone looked a bit like this:
The High-water Mark
Tiger’s win at Firestone in 2009 was vintage Cat and a performance I now realize I took for granted. Middling rounds of 68 and 70 had Tiger at -2, five shots back of Paddy Harrington, going into the weekend. The Irishman, who was in the midst of a swing change but had won the final two majors of ’08, posted a cheeky 67 to take a three-shot lead into the final day.
And then Tiger did Tiger stuff.
After a flawless front nine 5-under par 30, back to back bogeys at 13 and 14 left him one shot back. But, the 667-yard 16th that Arnie once famously tripled reared up and bit Paddy, gouging him for a snowman and handing the lead to Big Cat, who pounce on the opportunity. Another bird at 18 gave Tiger a 3-shot victory that looked more comfortable than it felt.
The same could be said for Tiger’s personal life later that year.
Post Tiger Era
Tiger’s 2010 return was turbulent at best but his return to the Bridgestone was an absolute disaster.
Pic of Tiger Ejecting over Northeast Ohio
Big Cat #Ejected firing an eighteen over par, 78th place finish (in an 80-player, no-cut field). His worst finish (barring MCs) since his very first tournament as a pro in 1996. This quote from Harig’s piece linked above is pretty indicative of Tiger’s mental state:
“Asked what he needs to do to turn it around, Woods said, ‘I need to hit the ball better, I need to chip better, I need to putt better and I need to score better.’” It must be bade when Tiger doesn’t even answer with technical or military #jargon.
It’s hard to say it’s been all downhill, but there certainly haven’t been many classic Big Cat performances at Firestone (or elsewhere) since his 2009 victory. Outside of his win during a semi-resurgent 2013 season, he’s finished T37, T8 (back-doored with a Sunday 66), WD, and NQ (not qualified). To add insult to career injury, the 2011 Bridgestone was the tournament where former caddie Stevie Williams captured a win he called “easily the sweetest of my life, and I sincerely mean that,” while on the bag of Adam Scott.
Back in better days…
And while he’s worked through more glute activations, chip yips, and release patterns than most golfers go through in a lifetime, the young thoroughbreds have arrived and are ready to run. As the tournament’s qualifications are the definition of “What have you done for me lately?” (minus the glacial OWGR), I wonder if Tiger will ever tee it up at Firestone competitively again…