Is Tiger Woods a sure thing at Firestone? Not in this crazy year

Fresh off a T3 at the British Open, Tiger Woods will chase his eighth career win at Firestone this week.
Simon Bruty / SI

Phil Mickelson was going to have a monster season after he won the AT&T in February, and Rory McIlroy was going to do the same after he won the Honda in March. No and no. When Tiger Woods won Bay Hill, the Memorial and the AT&T National, we just knew he’d win in his next major starts at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. Well, maybe next year.

This has been a hard season to get your arms around, so as the best players in the world prepare to tee it up in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone C.C. in Akron, Ohio, about all you can do is embrace the craziness.

For example, you have to love that Padraig Harrington, who didn’t qualify for Akron but likes to play the week before a major, is teeing it up at this week’s Reno-Tahoe Open at Montreux Golf & Country Club. Who would have guessed when Paddy won his third major in 13 months at the 2008 PGA Championship that he’d be headlining with Cheap Trick in the Biggest Little City in the World in 2012? The next thing you know, staunch European tour loyalist Lee Westwood will move from his farm in England to South Florida. (Yep, that’s happening, too.)

Here’s another thing we couldn’t have predicted: McIlroy and Mickelson, separated by 20 years and hailing from distant points on the globe, have begun to sound the same.

McIlroy, at his press conference in Akron on Tuesday, when he spent a good portion of the day on the club’s highly regarded driving range: “I haven't played as well as I would have liked. But I still had a couple top 10s and still have played some good golf in there, just haven't played the golf that I've wanted to at the right times, obviously being the U.S. Open and the Open a couple weeks ago.”

Mickelson, at Monday’s media day for the Barclays at Bethpage Black, the first tournament of the FedEx Cup playoffs, which starts Aug. 23: “Physically, I’ve been able to do everything I needed to do to start playing some better golf. And obviously the last two months has not been what I want.”

Both players, though, are sounding more confident.

McIlroy: “I'm trying to get back to win tournaments and trying to challenge for No.1 again.”

Mickelson: “This last week was a great week for me practice-wise. I feel like my game really made a turn.”

The heavy favorite to win is, of course, Woods. Like a set of Firestone tires, his tread marks are all over the par-70, 7,400-yard South Course. He’s won seven times in 12 starts -- with three other top-five finishes. The other two years he was making swing changes;  he finished T78 (second to last) in 2010 and T37 last year.

He will almost certainly win for the eighth time there, if recent history is any indication. Woods’s victories this season came at courses where he’s feasted in the past -- Bay Hill (seventh win), Muirfield Village (fifth) and Congressional (second).

Then again, it seemed as if Adam Scott was a lock to win the British Open, and we saw how that turned out. It was a year ago that Scott won the Bridgestone with the help of his new caddie and Tiger’s ex, Steve Williams, whose postgame comments on CBS left no doubt about the ugliness of the Williams-Woods split. One year after that controversy, Scott will try to bounce back from his four-bogey finish at Royal Meltdown & St. Annes. He’s in a similar position to the one McIlroy found himself in after he unraveled with a back-nine 43 on Sunday at the 2011 Masters.

“I sent him a text straight after,” McIlroy said. “I sort of felt like I knew how he was feeling. I just said to him, don't let the last four holes hide the fact that you played better than everyone else for the first 68. For me, as well, at Augusta, I had to really tell myself, look, for the first 63 holes you were better than everyone else.  It's not my fault, it's not his fault that a golf tournament is 72 holes.”

I’m not sure about the logic in that statement, but it makes as much sense as anything else this year, when seemingly unbreakable leads have been falling off the pommel horse and going splat since Kyle Stanley at Torrey Pines, and just one of my preseason predictions has come true: Rickie Fowler winning his first official Tour event. Whose fault is it? If I had to point the finger, I’d blame 2012.

Short game: Scott Piercy won’t defend his Reno-Tahoe title. Just four days after he won the RBC Canadian Open, he will tee it up at the WGC-Bridgestone. He’s also climbed to 18th in the Ryder Cup standings. … With two events left to crack the top eight and make U.S. Captain Davis Love’s team on points, Keegan Bradley is ninth. “I’m trying not to think about it,” Bradley said at the Deutsche Bank Championship media day Monday. “But it’s definitely on my mind at all times.” … McIlroy briefly toured the Athletes’ Village at the London Olympics last week. … Jeev Milkha Singh, who flew for 20 hours with his family from Delhi to Dubai to New York’s JFK to Akron, said Bollywood has made a movie out of the life of his father, who represented India in the Olympics in the 200- and 400-meters. The title (translated): “Run Milkha Run.” … Andres Gonzales, whose mullet-and-mutton-chop look evokes some of baseball’s hairiest relief pitchers, will throw out the first pitch at the Omaha Stormchasters vs. Reno Aces minor league baseball game Wednesday night -- as will Paul Haley II. Among the top five money-leaders on the Web.com tour, they’re in town for the Cox Classic presented by Lexus of Omaha. … The Champions tour heads to Minnesota for the 3M Championship at TPC Twin Cities. Mark Calcavecchia, John Cook, Bernhard Langer and Tom Lehman will try to topple 2011 champ Jay Haas.

They said it: Bradley on being the defending champion at next week’s PGA at Kiawah: “I’m not able to watch replays of the PGA. I get too nervous.”

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