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Former U.S. Open champs Rose, Furyk set for Bridgestone duel

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AKRON, Ohio – If you feel the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational has been a snooze-fest through 54 holes, you’re probably not alone.

Sure, the tournament bears a World Golf Championships prefix, and the hefty purse to match. But thanks to a variety of factors, this week has more closely resembled a half-filled balloon.

This event has seen Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy hoist the trophy over the last two years, and things got off to a bad start when neither showed up this week in Akron – although one certainly would have preferred to make the trek had he been invited.

Then the ovens got turned up at Firestone Country Club, turning a typically soft venue into the type of firm and fast layout that only Mike Davis could love. While fans last year were treated to a birdie barrage between McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, this week par remains an enviable score.

Instead of roars for tight approaches and birdie runs, galleries have been left to applaud tidy two-putts from 35 feet and scrambling par saves. The cheers that often envelop portions of the South Course have been mostly non-existent.

The PGA Championship always casts a shadow over the proceedings here, but this week it seems especially long as players try to fine-tune their game for Whistling Straits.

It didn’t help matters, then, that Jim Furyk – not exactly the Tour’s flashiest player – took control of things Friday and appeared ready to put this event on ice at the halfway point of the third round.

But lo and behold, despite the lack of buzz and theatrics, a compelling finale has emerged.

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Furyk began the day with a four-shot lead and maintained that cushion until Justin Rose came roaring from the pack, firing a 7-under 63 to draw even with the 36-hole leader. Now the two former U.S. Open champions are set for an intriguing final-round duel, featuring one of the hottest players of the summer and a man who still has a score to settle at Firestone.

Rose sparked his season with a runner-up finish at the Masters and hasn’t looked back since. A win in New Orleans has been followed by three top-six finishes in his last four starts, a run he appears set to extend this week.

“If I look back at Augusta, that was the start of me feeling very confident,” Rose said. “Got beaten by a great Jordan (Spieth) performance, but I felt that I was good enough that week to win another major.”

While his season has had plenty of highlights, Rose admits he let one get away the last time he was in the Buckeye State, surrendering a 54-hole lead at the Memorial before losing a playoff to little-known David Lingmerth.

“I played well there, should have knocked that one off,” he said.

A victory Sunday would give Rose his first multiple-win season since 2010, and it would also offer plenty of momentum heading into the PGA, where he will likely be considered one of the pre-tournament favorites. Furyk, meanwhile, is focused more on finally closing it out on one of his favorite venues.

The 45-year-old has lavished praise all week upon Firestone, which he put alongside Colonial and Harbour Town among his favorite Tour stops. A native of Pennsylvania, Furyk has said that the tree-lined fairways and old-school design of the South Course remind him of the courses he grew up on.

While Furyk’s record here is exemplary, Firestone has also been the site of some of his biggest heartbreak. He lost a hard-fought, seven-hole playoff to Tiger Woods in 2001, then shocked the crowds gathered around the final green in 2012 when his double bogey on the 72nd  hole handed the trophy to Keegan Bradley.

“I would say that I’m disappointed I’ve never won here,” Furyk said. “It’s one of my favorite courses that we play.”

Furyk ended a lengthy victory drought earlier this year with a come-from-behind win at Hilton Head, but another troubling footnote to his resume still lingers. Sunday will mark the 10th time that he has carried at least a share of the lead into the final round since 2011 – the most of any player in that span. Each of the previous nine opportunities ended in disappointment.

It’s a streak Furyk would not be in position to end were it not for an 11-foot par putt that he rolled in from off the fringe on No. 18 to cap a 1-under 69, his eighth straight sub-par round at Firestone.

“Knocking that putt in was nice,” Furyk said. “In the whole scheme of things, it’s nice to have the shot. It’s just a good way to finish off the day.”

While Sunday’s matchup is not exactly Hagler-Hearns, it does represent a contest between two proven winners with similar approaches.

“I get on well with Jim,” Rose said. “He obviously is very business-like out there on the golf course, and that suits me just fine.”

“Our personalities may have some similarities like that,” added Furyk. “I think it will be a good pairing for both of us. We get along well.”

While the winner will likely come from within the final pairing, Shane Lowry lurks at 7 under, two shots back, and a quartet of players – Bubba Watson and Henrik Stenson, chief among them – also sit two shots further adrift, poised for a potential final-round rally.

The excitement levels have yet to match those of years past at Firestone, but that could all still change.