AKRON, Ohio – It was in February at the Valspar Championship when the idea began to take shape. At the time, Tiger Woods was 389th in the World Ranking and, if we’re being honest, something of a long shot to move anywhere near the top 50 anytime soon.
A reporter mentioned to Woods that he needed to be inside the top 50 in the ranking in July to qualify for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. They don’t do sponsor exemptions at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, or any of the World Golf Championships, even for an eight-time winner.
There have been all manner of goals large and small for Woods during this most recent comeback, to the most basic idea of remaining upright for a full season to contending in major championships again. High on his “to do” list in 2018 was playing his way to Firestone Country Club, which will host the final Bridgestone Invitational this week.
For Woods this was more than a competitive goal, there was a genuine sense of sentimentality, which is rare for a player who has avoided such luxuries throughout his career like a three-putt.
Woods has won at almost every venue where he’s teed it up as a professional with amazingly few exceptions, but his record at Firestone surpasses most player’s careers.
Included in those eight victories is 12 top-10 finishes in 15 starts and more than $11 million in total earnings, which would put him somewhere around 160th in career PGA Tour earnings ahead of the likes of John Daly’s total haul.
If Augusta National and Torrey Pines have defined Woods’ career, Firestone is where he’s proven his brilliance time after time.
“That was certainly a goal of mine,” Woods said on Wednesday at Firestone. “I was just hoping to, one, play the Tour long enough to be able to get an opportunity, but I also had to play well to do it and I was ranked pretty far down in the world there. Starting last December, I was about 1,200 in the world and within a year to get down to 50, I think is a pretty good accomplishment.”
Woods’ tie for sixth two weeks ago at The Open was just enough to move him to 50th in the World Ranking at the deadline. As he made his way around the South Course on a rainy Wednesday everything else fell into place like riding a bike he’s never fallen off.
Woods’ history at Firestone is a literal highlight reel.
In 2013, his last victory at the Bridgestone, he rolled the field by seven strokes thanks to a second-round 61, and was almost as impressive in 2009 when he cruised to a four-shot triumph. That’s not to say everything has gone perfectly for Woods in Akron. In 2006, Woods’ approach into the ninth hole sailed over the green and the grandstand, bounced hard off a cart path and across the roof of the clubhouse before coming to rest on a loading dock floor.
Woods found his errant golf ball and ended up making bogey on his way to a playoff victory over Stewart Cink.
But it was in 2000, when he was in the middle of winning three consecutive Bridgestone Invitationals, when Woods was in full flight.
“I've done it so many different ways. I think the best I've played was probably that year in 2000,” Woods said when asked to pick his best moment at Firestone. “I really played well that year and I shot 21 under. I remember Hal [Sutton] and I just running to try to get it in to make sure we didn’t have to come back here on Monday for one hole.”
Woods putted out in complete darkness with only the illumination from the scoreboard and fans holding up lighters to show him the way on the 72nd hole. He won by 11 shots.
All of those memories returned on Wednesday as Woods reaped the reward for seven months of solid if not spectacular play. Earning his ticket to the season’s final World Golf Championship would have been rewarding enough, but for Woods this week is more than simply another chance for a breakthrough victory.
As part of the Tour’s dramatically revamped schedule the World Golf Championship will relocate to Memphis next season and will be played the week after The Open. For a place that’s meant so much to Woods it was important to be here for its final chapter.
“It's always been one of my favorite golf courses on the entire Tour and it's unfortunate that it is leaving,” Woods said. “The people have always come out and supported this event. This has been one of the very few tournaments that is kind of a small town atmosphere. It's a very simple, straightforward golf course, which we don't see very often.”
Given the current parity in professional golf it’s also unlikely the game will ever see a player dominate a venue the way Tiger has owned Firestone in his career. On the grand scorecard, this week’s event may end up being nothing more than a footnote in Woods’ comeback, but for Tiger it means so much more.