AKRON, Ohio – When the World Golf Championships were devised in the late 1990s, the thought was clear: create a new tier of events with a global focus, a series of tournaments that would sit below the four majors in perception but above the weekly grind of the PGA Tour.
The three (and, ultimately, four) events did just that – with elite venues hosting no-cut events that offered both guaranteed money and world ranking points, the best players in the world gathered with predictable regularity. The advent of the FedEx Cup playoffs in 2007, though, added a new wrinkle to the PGA Tour schedule that suddenly placed this week’s event in the crosshairs of the busiest stretch of golf each calendar season.
While the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the WGC-Cadillac Championship are both safely isolated in the early season run-up to the Masters, and the WGC-HSBC Champions serves as a rare high-profile event during the month of November, this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational does not harbor such security on the calendar. Contested within a short gap between the season’s final two majors, the event now also occurs with the season-ending playoffs looming just weeks away.
“This stretch is maybe a little more difficult,” explained Jim Furyk, who was runner-up at Firestone a year ago. “We do cram stuff in here a little bit.”
Furyk will be doing more cramming than most across this month, as he is one of several notable players whose relationship with last week’s title sponsor, RBC, led to an appearance at Glen Abbey immediately after the conclusion of play at Muirfield.
“Knowing that I’m going to have the British Open, the Canadian Open, Bridgestone and the PGA, it’s a tough run,” Furyk noted of his four-week stretch that will conclude next week at Oak Hill. “But it’s better than the alternative. This schedule is a lot better than what we had before the FedEx Cup.”
An even stronger example of scheduling gone awry can be seen with last week’s winner in Canada, Brandt Snedeker, who partners with both RBC and Wyndham. Should he advance to East Lake to defend his season-long FedEx Cup title, Snedeker will likely face a gauntlet of nine consecutive events, from the British Open to the Tour Championship, with just a single bye week in between the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship in September. In a sign that the schedule perhaps is becoming overly burdensome, last week 20-year-old Jordan Spieth withdrew from this week’s WGC event, forfeiting a guaranteed payday to instead rest in preparation for the upcoming stretch he now faces.
For many players, though, the condensed schedule can be seen as a positive. A tie for fifth at this event last year helped to springboard Rory McIlroy to a torrid end-of-season stretch, highlighted by his PGA Championship title and a pair of FedEx Cup playoff victories.
“I love this tournament, I think it’s great preparation for the week before the PGA,” explained McIlroy, who is planning to play in six PGA Tour events across the next eight weeks, though at 58th in FedEx Cup points his spot at East Lake is far from a certainty. By comparison, he didn’t make his sixth PGA Tour start this season until the Masters.
“I think the practice facilities are great; you get four good rounds in, four competitive rounds,” he continued. “Obviously, people are looking towards next week, but it’s a huge tournament in its own right. It’s a WGC, and I’ve always really enjoyed it here.”
Still, with players able to meticulously plan their schedules leading up to each of the first three majors, the placement of such a high-profile event immediately before the season’s final major can have unintended consequences.
“It’s a little bit tough for me,” explained 2011 PGA Championship runner-up Jason Dufner. “I’ve had a routine where I go the week before, practice and prepare for these majors just because the courses rotate so much, so you’re trying to get as much knowledge and experience on the golf course.”
Now adjusting to life as a major champion, Justin Rose, like Dufner, admits to making some changes during arguably the busiest stretch of golf each year.
“I think scheduling-wise, it forces you to treat the major like a regular Tour event,” Rose said of the pairing of this week’s WGC event and next week’s PGA Championship on the schedule. “It’s very difficult to prepare differently just because of how quickly the majors come around this time of year … Because it’s so busy, you end up falling into a very sort of normal PGA Tour routine.”
With the heart of the PGA Tour schedule unlikely to change anytime soon, players are faced with the notion of simply adjusting to a period of several high-profile events in succession. As for Dufner, a player with ties to Northeast Ohio, any changes his PGA Championship preparation must endure are a welcome trade-off for an event he circles each year on the calendar, despite the scheduling factors involved.
“You just can’t pass this event, it’s a great event,” he added. “Either way you’re going to be playing golf, whether you’re practicing or getting ready for the major, or like this week playing the course.”