AKRON, Ohio – These are tense times to be an elite professional golfer.
The top 50 players in the world teed it up for the Bridgestone Invitational this week, which has a purse of $8.5 million and pays $1.4 million to the winner. It’s quite a prize.
Next week is the last major of the year, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
Also, European and American players are hoping to represent their country at the Ryder Cup. And there’s also world rankings, position on the money list and a dozen other considerations to play for in the coming weeks.
So there’s a lot riding on each round, each swing of the club, every putt.
“It’s a round of golf that could mean a lot,” Hunter Mahan said after shooting a 4-under 66 in Saturday’s third round of the Bridgestone to move into a tie for seventh. “I don’t know, you just have to play golf right now and forget about all that other stuff that comes with it. Because it’s a lot right now. But it’s a good thing that you’re involved in this talk. It’s exciting.”
England’s Oliver Wilson is gunning to make the European Ryder Cup team.
“One good week and you’re right in there,” he said after a 67 put him in a tie for 10th at the Bridgestone. “It’s something that I really, really want to be a part of. The strength in Europe this year is just ridiculous. It really is fantastic. I’m outside the top 50 in the world, so at the moment I don’t really deserve to be on the team. You could pick a team easily from the top 20. Having said that, there’s still hope and I’ve got four weeks left. I’d like to have a good one tomorrow and play well next week. Who knows?”
The Englishman was a part of the European team two years ago at Valhalla. He admitted that he doesn’t want to even think about what it will be like if he doesn’t make it this time around.
“I’ll be devastated if I don’t make it. I really will,” he said. “It means so much to me, just to be a part of that team.”
Mahan is 10th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings. The top eight through the PGA Championship are assured of spots on the team.
No one needs to tell him what’s riding on how he plays in Sunday’s final round, or next week at Whistling Straits.
“It’s important for Ryder Cup, FedEx points – a lot of things,” he said. “It’s also important to establish some rhythm. So to have some good rounds, it’d be nice.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Phil Mickelson, who is four shots back of the leaders, discussing his approach on Sunday: “I’m entering tomorrow thinking I have to be on the attack, that I’ve got to be firing at pins and making birdies to try and catch the leaders. And I like that feeling.”
WELCOME BACK, KATSUMASA: Ten years after he left the PGA Tour, Katsumasa Miyamoto is back in the States.
Miyamoto made a big splash on Saturday at the Bridgestone Invitational when he shot an 8-under 62, tying the tournament record for the third round.
Asked what he recalled from a not so successful year playing on tour in 1999, he said, “It’s been 10 years, but the food is still good. I went to Applebee’s last night and was able to eat some chicken wings. So it’s good to be back.”
The 37-year-old Miyamoto, who plays an orange golf ball, had rounds of 71 and 72 before putting up six birdies and an eagle with one bogey in the third round.
The eagle was a particular stunner. He hit a 274-yard drive into a fairway bunker at the par-4 17th, then holed his second shot from 116 yards.
That helped him record a 29 on the back nine, also tying a tournament record.
“Just unbelievable,” he said. “Of all the great players that have played here that really haven’t posted that score, it’s just an honor. I’m just really so excited right now.”
Tied for 58th when the day began, his round got him within two shots of the lead at one point. He will enter the final round tied for 10th and four shots back.
He isn’t planning on cruising to the finish.
“I want to get as many birdies as I did today,” he said.
FINDING FAIRWAYS: Matt Kuchar enters the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational alone in third place, one shot back of co-leaders Ryan Palmer and Sean O’Hair.
He owes it all to the longest club in his bag.
“I drove it beautifully today,” he said Saturday after putting the finishing touches on a 66 that left him at 8-under 202. “I think I hit 13 of 14 fairways and I missed just one – and the first fairway I was only in the first cut and was able to make birdie from there.”
Kuchar, who shares the PGA Tour lead with Retief Goosen with seven top-10 finishes this year, is near the top of the leaderboard despite playing only nine holes at Firestone Country Club before the first round.
“I got in Tuesday night figuring I’d play a practice round on Wednesday,” he said. “I lounged around in the morning with the kids and figured most guys would play nine holes in the morning and be done and I’d have the course to myself in the afternoon. Then a big storm came in – it didn’t rain at all but there was some lightning and storm clouds in the area. So I only got the front nine in for a practice round.”
No matter. Kuchar has played Firestone like he lives on the course, opening with a 69 and following up with a 67.
He knows how to play the layout already: Hit it long and straight and you’ll be OK.
“There are no tricks out there,” he said. “I knew you just had to drive it accurately, and from there it was pretty self-explanatory.”
HOMECOMING: Ben Curtis went to school not far away at Kent State University. He makes his home in a suburb.
So whenever the 2003 British Open champion comes to Akron to play in the Bridgestone Invitational, he has his hands full entertaining relatives and friends.
“We entertain a little bit, nothing major, small cookouts,” he said, referring to himself and wife Candace. “But nothing so major it affects the way I play. Actually, it’s good you get your mind away from it and out of it. It’s not a big distraction.”
Curtis grew up not far from Columbus, but played at Firestone Country Club a lot in college and since turning pro.
He chuckled when asked if he had any kind of a home-course advantage.
“Yes and no,” he said. “It’s just a long course. There’s no real advantage. If you’re not swinging good or putting that great you’re not going to play that good.”
He said rain earlier in the week actually helped the field. Now even long approach shots are sticking on the greens.
“Knowing you’re going to hit a 4 iron and it’s going to just hit and stop, that’s a little bit different,” he said. “Normally it’s firm and fast here. Even when you’re hitting a 7, 8 or 9 iron, it’s almost harder than it is playing now.”
DIVOTS: Tiger Woods had six bogeys in 72 holes a year ago in winning the Bridgestone. He has 16 bogeys and a double-bogey in 54 holes this year. … Paul Casey (73) and Justin Leonard (69) happened to wear identical orange Nike shirts on Saturday. … Twenty-one players are within five shots of the lead. … Woods enters the final round in 78th place out of 80 golfers – and is a shot back of Anthony Kim who hadn’t played in the three months leading up to the tournament while rehabbing from surgery on an injured thumb.