Tiger favored to win Bridgestone Invitational

By The Associated Press


AKRON, Ohio – Tiger Woods was given the choice to play one golf course where he had to win, with a few stipulations.

Augusta National was closed.

And his passport had expired, so he couldn’t go to St. Andrews.

The best options would be Torrey Pines or Firestone, where Woods has won four times each among his 51 victories on the PGA Tour.

“It would be probably be here,” Woods said Wednesday at the Bridgestone Invitational, where he is defending champion and will try to win for a fifth time on Firestone South.

“It’s a treat to get to play a golf course like this, because all the modern courses aren’t like this,” he said. “They don’t have trees like this or defined fairways. Every hole looks like it’s an alley way. It’s more of a ball-striking course.”

Woods has won by 11 shots and won in a seven-hole playoff, and he has never finished out of the top 10 at Firestone dating to 1997, when it was the World Series of Golf.

“This is his benefit tournament,” said U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.

Making him even more dangerous this week is the timing. Woods is coming off a five-shot victory in the PGA Championship and will go for his fourth consecutive victory this week.

He is at his best when he is in his comfort zone. Sometimes that can be on a golf course, such as the Firestone, Torrey Pines or Muirfield Village (three victories). And sometimes that can be a position on the leaderboard.

Woods improved to 12-0 in the majors and 37-3 on the PGA Tour when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead, beating Luke Donald last week at Medinah.

“You’d like to go into a final round thinking that the pressure was on him because he’s expected to play well,” Donald said. “But it’s almost reversed that way, because he’s been there so many times. And for me, that was one of my first times. He knows how to do it. He’s been there many times. It comes a little bit easier for him.”

In the majors alone, Woods has failed to break par only one time when playing in the final group, a 2-over 72 at Bethpage Black when he won the 2002 U.S. Open by three shots. His average score in those situations is 69.25, while his 11 opponents (Sergio Garcia has played with him in the final round twice) is 72.67.

It wasn’t always like that.

Woods said he has noticed a transformation in his comfort level over the last 10 years, from his first time playing in the last group at a major (a nine-shot lead) to three days ago at Medinah.

“Winning breeds winning, and the fact that I’ve been down the stretch and I’ve been down there enough times where I’ve had to handle the heat, that gives you an added confidence,” he said. “I can always say, ‘I’ve done that.’ Because I have. As the years go by, you still are nervous but probably not as much.”

There’s not much to get nervous about this week.

The Bridgestone Invitational is a World Golf Championship – Woods already has won 11 of those, by the way – which means different things to different players. To some, it’s a short field. To others, it’s an elite field.

To most, it’s free money.

The field is composed of Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup players, along with the top 50 in the world and selected tournament winners from the six main tours around the world.

It adds to 78, everyone from Woods to Shiv Kapur of India, from Phil Mickelson to Gonzalo Fernandez. They will be playing for $7.5 million, with $1.3 million going to the winner and $30,250 for last place.

The United States set its Ryder Cup team Monday, with Tom Lehman choosing Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank as his captain’s picks. Europe’s team won’t be determined for another two weeks, ending at the BMW International Open in Germany.

Five players qualify through world ranking points, and the other five from a European tour money list that began last summer. Where it gets tricky is that most Europeans play a full schedule in America and rely heavily on the world rankings.

But at a tournament like the Bridgestone Invitational, the money can go a long way.

With so much money on the table, that makes it a big week for Paul McGinley and Jose Maria Olazabal. And with a big field and loads of world ranking points, Carl Pettersson is feeling the heat.

Pettersson is a Swede by birth who spent his formative years in North Carolina and rarely plays the European tour. He tried to join last year but had to wait until the end of the year, meaning his victory in Tampa and runner-up in the Southern Farm Bureau Classic at the end of last year didn’t count.

“I’ve lost all those points. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be four out,” Pettersson said. “I really need to play well.”

Donald’s tie for third at Medinah moved him to the top of the Ryder Cup list, securing his spot on the team. All he cares about this week is winning, although that might mean going through Woods.

“I’m not trying to beat one person,” Donald said. “It would be ridiculous to say that he’s going to win every event he enters.”

Right now, it only seems that way – especially at Firestone.