Tiger the Man to Beat at Firestone

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Due to the delayed finish of the PGA Championship, it's a short week for some of the games top players as they descend upon Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, for this week's WGC-NEC Invitational.
 
Since it was included as one of the four World Golf Championship events in 1999, the NEC has had quite a run of entertaining golf. And the one player who has put on the best show at Firestone is Tiger Woods.
 
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods' record at the WGC-NEC is unmatched by anyone in the event's six year history.
In the event's inaugural year of 1999, Tiger rolled in a 15-footer for birdie on the 17th to help him edge Phil Mickelson by a stroke. The win came on the heels of his first-ever victory at the PGA Championship.
 
He then duplicated the feat the following year, pulling off the double dip at the PGA and NEC by lapping the field in Akron. Twice flirting with shooting 59, Tiger's 259 four-day total still stands as the tournament record.
 
In 2001, Woods and Jim Furyk put on an epic duel in a seven-hole playoff that ended with Woods third straight victory in the event.
 
The following two years a little international flavor reached the winner's circle with Australia's Craig Parry taking home the title in 2002 and then Darren Clarke puffing his way to victory in 2003.
 
Which leads us to defending champion Stewart Cink's win last year over that Woods fella. No, Tiger didn't win but his second place showing ran his record at the NEC to this: 1st, 1st, 1st, T-4, 4th and 2nd. Throw out his opening-round 75 at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol and we could be looking at Tiger going for his third PGA-NEC combo this week.
 
Five for the Title
 
Tiger Woods
Woods is the least likely player to have a post-PGA letdown due to his record at Firestone and his unwavering belief in trying to win every tournament. Tiger is unquestionably the mentally toughest in the game - a point reinforced by his T-4 finish after grinding to just make the cut at Baltusrol,. And Firestone CC obviously fits his eye and its length - a monster at 7,360 yards on a par-70 layout - bodes well for the world's No. 1 player.
 
Phil Mickelson
With another 800lb. gorilla off his back following his validating win at Baltusrol, Lefty might shoot for even loftier goals such as challenging Woods for the No. 1 world ranking. A tall order indeed, considering Mickelson has never ascended to the top spot in the world, even before Tiger made it on the scene back in 1996. Mickelson has had success in this event, with a win in 1996 when it was known as the World Series of Golf, then three straight runners-up from 1997-99.
 
Davis Love
Sparked by his strong showing at the PGA Championship, Love brings a good record at the NEC to the table. Though he hasn't visited the winner's circle, Love has four top-10s in just six attempts, including a fourth place showing last year and a third in 2003. Despite having a rough go at it in the final round at the PGA, he proved to himself he can still play with the best.
 
Vijay Singh
Not one to let things ruffle his feathers too much - like a poor putting performance at Baltusrol - Singh just continues to put up astonishing numbers, and most importantly wins. Tied with Woods and Mickelson with four titles thus far in 2005, the big Fijian also has seven other top-5s on the year. Best showing at Firestone, however, is a tie for sixth in 2003.
 
Retief Goosen
Goosen has quietly - of course - put together an impressive season with a win at the International two weeks ago and his third top-6 effort in the majors at the PGA Championship. Striking the ball as well as just about anybody, the Goose just needs to get hot with the putter. Ranked fifth in the world and sitting in the sixth spot on the money list, Goosen will most assuredly be in the mix this weekend.
 
Playing Out the Font Nine
 
Four more to keep an eye on...
 
* Stewart Cink
Always needing to give a nod to the defending champ, Cink's sizzling opening-round 63 last year led to his wire-to-wire win, which was his second victory of the season. Ranked fifth in prize money in '04, he currently sits in the 34th position.
 
* David Toms
The unassuming Toms is putting together another solid, if not spectacular, season. He was, however, spectacular in the year's first WGC event. His roll through the six-match Match Play event was some of the finest golf of the year. He comes into NEC with some confidence after a satisfying 69-68 on the weekend at Baltusrol.
 
* Zach Johnson
Might be playing with a chip on his shoulder after be passed over by Jack Nicklaus for the Presidents Cup team. Finished 12th on the list but Fred Couples got the nod.
 
* Fred Couples
Opposite of Johnson, gets boost of confidence with his selection to the team from hero Nicklaus. Was in the mix at PGA Championship until a final-round 76 derailed him. Plus, with the majors now over for 2005 it's about time he starts warming up for those silly season events that he loves, in which there is no equal.
 
Related links:
  • Full Coverage - WGC-NEC Invitational

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