It's destination Akron, Ohio, and Firestone South for the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. The first of a huge two weeks is in store as the elite players warm up for Whistling Straits and the PGA Championship. Jordan Spieth - 6.50 - leads the market, and once again he will have the opportunity to top the official world golf rankings in the absence of Rory McIlroy. This is a reduced field of 77 players with withdrawals from Rory, Alex Noren and Chris Kirk due to injury. It's a non-cut event.
Firestone is one of my favourite courses to profile players for. The ever changing rough depth will be pivotal to scoring and had been described as unfair by some of the tour pros back around the turn of the decade. Padraig Harrington - 176.0 - found himself tangled up in the cabbage behind the par 5 16th green back in 2009 when head to head with Tiger Woods. His lie was so bad he ended up thinning it back through the green into the water and carding a snowman 8. Bubba Watson - 34.00 - smashed a drive 424 yards down that same hole last year - one of a number of long drives recorded at Firestone. This is due largely to a fast and firm "major like" setup that is often the theme here. The average driving distance back in 2012 was almost 315 yards for the tournament, given the dry conditions.
The course - Firestone CC
Firestone Country Club plays 7,400 yards to a par 70 with a generally sparse tree line running along parallel fairways. More often than not playing fast and firm (although softer last year), pin positions on the South track are usually set up to be accessible on day one but get tougher as the week goes on. There's a strong emphasis on total driving efficiency to allow higher trajectory approach shots and better angles of attack into some of these pin positions, often guarded by bunkers, especially if conditions are as firm as the norm in Akron. Greens are usually set to run around 13' on the stimpmeter at Firestone.
Depending on the rough depth, errant drives may go unpunished and can often find gaps in the trees or in many cases find the fairways of the holes running parallel. This may be one of the reasons why Tiger Woods loves Firestone. Tiger lead the 'proximity to the hole' stat in 2013 enroute to his 8th win here. Rory was 2nd in prox when winning in 2014. Leaderboards down the years here are littered with players who excel in the driving department. In 2012 Rafa Cabrera Bello - known for his tee to green ability on the European Tour - went from 300.0 plus on the exchanges to almost single figures after opening 65-66.
Three from the pack
Adam Scott - 19.00 or 4.50 - is usually the first name that comes to mind when long and straight driving is the brief. The Aussie is 3rd in the total driving department and unsurprisingly is a former winner of this event. Scotty ranks 2nd in greens in regulation and had the run of the greens here enroute to victory in 2011. He's fifth in strokes gained tee to green. With Steve Williams back by his side, Scott is playing sparingly and focusing on being prepared for the big events. This has resulted in a T4 at the US Open and a top 10 at the Open Championship where Scott was tied for the lead at one stage into his back nine.
I simply love Hideki Matsuyama - 29.00 or 6.50 - at his price relative to the market leaders this week. The golfing machine was pouring them in from everywhere at ST. Andrews on the Friday and it will be all about the flat stick for him. I say this as he dominates from tee to green: 5th in total driving, 1st in strokes gained tee to green, 4th in ball striking and the all round. Hideki also finished last season 5th in proximity - a season he led that stat for the week enroute to his win at Memorial, a track which requires similar approach shot accuracy to Firestone. He has not finished outside the top 25 in his last 9 strokeplay events on the PGA Tour. The Japanese has three top 5s in this time including The Masters and Memorial. Stats wise, you'd be hard pushed to find a player to fit the Firestone profile more. The 23-year-old has progressive 21 - 12 form here from two starts. 3rd time lucky.
Keegan Bradley gets the nod at a fair 41.00 or 9.00 again this week. Yes, I've tipped him now on here for the 4th year running at Firestone but there's a reason for that. Again, 4th in total driving in 2015, and the ability to play towering approaches into these greens is a big part of his success at one of his "favourite courses". Keegan also has a read on the Firestone Greens as he's shown by holing out fantastically well in his 15-1-2-4 finishes in 4 starts here. He has been affected by the upcoming anchoring ban with the flat stick but the course specialist has to be still worth a bet at the price.
Charley Hoffman - 101.0 or 19.00 - has really caught the eye this season and for me his results haven't justified his performances despite a win at Mayakoba. Charley was in with a strong shout at The Masters eventually finishing 9th, and has been in the mix on numerous occasions. In round 2 at Glen abbey, Hoffman went on a token par breaking blitz: He carded 2 eagles in three holes, added to 3 birdies for minus 7 through an 8 hole stretch. The American was 3rd in driving distance and 2nd in putts per GIR at the Canadian Open. He has solid form of 22 - 37 at Firestone and could surprise.