The four WGC events held each year occupy a peculiar spot on the pro golf hierarchy.
They’re not majors, nor are they treated as such. But they’re also a step above the so-called “regular” Tour stops, even those that annually head to some of the game’s most iconic layouts.
A WGC win, then, can mean different things to different players, and heading into the finale of the Bridgestone Invitational, the scenarios are spanning the spectrum. But the focus begins with the two men sharing the lead, a duo that traded punches at Hazeltine last fall and now will share the tournament’s final pairing.
Zach Johnson’s resumé is lacking little, as the two-time major winner is perhaps the biggest overachiever of his generation. At age 41, he could retire tomorrow and still receive a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame in a few years.
But he has never won a WGC event, and he has never been better than T-4 at Firestone despite playing each of the last 13 years – an active streak surpassed only by Phil Mickelson. Johnson appeared mired in a slump for much of this year, and in March he fell out of the top 50 in the world rankings for the first time since 2007. His spot in this week’s field came only thanks to his place on last year’s Ryder Cup squad.
A T-5 finish at the John Deere Classic was his first top-10 in months, and he followed it with a T-14 showing at Royal Birkdale. Now with three straight rounds in the 60s, he’s again flashing the form that has helped him to lift a dozen trophies.
“I don’t know how many top-10s I’ve had here, but it’s probably been a handful,” Johnson said. “I feel like I can compete here. That goes without saying.”
Johnson still has not won since capturing the claret jug more than two years ago, a drought he hopes to end Sunday. But in order to do so he’ll need to play from the pole position, an unfamiliar spot given that each of his last six wins have been of the come-from-behind variety.
He’ll also be leaning on an unusual weapon for a player best known for his wedges and short game. Johnson cracked the face of his driver at The Open, and the replacement has exceeded his expectations this week in Akron.
“This is the best I’ve driven it probably all year,” Johnson said. “It’s probably the best driver I’ve had in my bag all year, if not ever. So, very encouraged.”
Then there’s Pieters, a budding prospect whose record over the last year has seemingly been building toward a breakthrough on a big stage. The Belgian starred as a captain’s pick at the Ryder Cup, then notched top-5 finishes this spring at the Genesis Open (T-2), WGC-Mexico Championship (T-5) and Masters (T-4).
While he hasn’t done much since Augusta, Pieters now has an opportunity to emulate Shane Lowry’s feat from two years ago, using a win at Firestone to transform from a highly-touted European into a PGA Tour staple.
“I think the ones I’ve gotten in contention this year, I’ve gotten very quick,” Pieters said. “Not so much nervous, but just anxious to finish and to have a good finish. Maybe tomorrow I have to get back to being calm and just let it come to me.”
Pieters has been pessimistic about his driving all week, and the stats back it up, as the Belgian has hit only 13 fairways through three rounds. But at one point he amassed a three-shot lead during the third round thanks to six birdies over his first 10 holes, and while he regressed down the stretch, a closing birdie drew him even with Johnson heading into the final round.
“My bad golf is getting better,” Pieters said. “That’s always good. That’s why you practice, I guess.”
Granted, this is far from a two-horse race. Aussie Scott Hend sits one shot back in search of what would be a watershed victory at age 43, while two of the game’s biggest stars are still very much in the mix.
Hideki Matsuyama won a WGC event earlier this season and had claret jug aspirations until blasting his opening tee shot out of bounds during the final round at Royal Birkdale. He’s again ideally positioned, just two shots off the pace and one of only five players to break par each of the first three rounds.
Another member of that select group is Rory McIlroy, who has bent Firestone to his will off the tee but largely failed to capitalize from there. The Ulsterman is doing the heavy lifting this week with friend Harry Diamond on the bag, but he now has a chance to repeat his rally from three years ago, when he raced past Sergio Garcia to grab the trophy.
“I was three behind going into Sunday last time and I think I took the lead by the sixth tee box,” McIlroy said. “There’s obviously a few more guys up around the lead this time around, but I’m going to need to start like that again.”
With the season’s final major on the horizon, players have a tangible goal toward which to build momentum with their final loop around Firestone. But for those still with title aspirations, the allure of a trophy from golf’s not-quite-top shelf has plenty of appeal on its own.