Nobody gave Padraig Harrington an asterisk for his British Open title. Vijay Singh’s default victory at the Bridgestone Invitational might be a different story.
How does a guy win a World Golf Championship event despite missing a majority of his putts between four and eight feet? Well, he wins when nobody else can get it done on Sunday afternoon, either. The backup theatrics made for an interesting show. For a few moments, it looked as if Stuart Appleby might swoop in and steal the tournament with a birdie-birdie-birdie finish, but his putt on the 18th green stopped an inch right of the cup.
Let’s see, Phil Mickelson made bogey on three of the last four holes to knock himself out of contention. Why on earth did he hit driver (not his best club) at the 17th when a 3-wood would’ve taken the fairway bunker out of play? Phil found the bunker and made bogey. Lee Westwood had a prime chance but missed a curvy eight-footer for birdie at 17, then badly mis-hit a 15-footer for birdie at the 18th that would’ve forced a playoff.
There was nothing about Harrington’s win at Royal Birkdale that made you feel like playing the what-if game. A closing 32 in high winds does that. Everything about this final round at Firestone begged the what-if question. What if man had descended from bees instead of apes? No. What if Tiger had been healthy and playing in the field?
I’ll tell you what. Tiger would’ve taken the fairway bunker out of play at 17. All those three- and four-footers that Vijay missed? Tiger would’ve made them. Westwood’s putts at 17 and 18? Tiger makes at least one, if not both. Of course, maybe Tiger wouldn’t have needed them. Singh won with a total of 10 under par. Woods won at Firestone with that same score two years ago. Last year he shot eight under and won by a whopping eight strokes.
Woods owns six wins at Firestone. He shot 10 under in ’99, 21 under in 2000, 12 under in ’01 and six under in ’05. Given this week’s firm and reasonably benign conditions, it’s hard to imagine him not being in the mix. And with that as a given, it’s impossible to imagine him not finishing stronger than Sunday’s contenders.
That said, the Bridgestone result bodes well for this week’s PGA Championship at Oakland Hills. Mostly familiar names, and mostly elite world players, were snooping around the lead. That may mean we can expect more of the same.
Singh’s first victory since early ’07 makes him a potential contender. You know he’s going to spend hours on the green figuring out what’s wrong with his stroke now that he’s gone back to his favorite belly putter. He can’t keep putting this poorly. His short misses on the weekend, however, were the stuff of men who nearly win majors.
Then again, it couldn’t have been that bad for Vijay — he got to 10 under par. And, he’s won two PGA Championships. Instead of being washed up, as some were beginning to think, he showed that his tee-to-green game is still major-worthy. He’s now a factor again.
Though he reverted to Mr. Aerosol at the finish, Mickelson at least hit enough fairways to take the lead into the final nine at Firestone. He, too, has won a PGA Championship. He hit more fairways than he has in past weeks, an improvement, but he missed them when it mattered. Mickelson also may have spent too much time straightening out his driver because his short game was spotty. He hit some poor wedge shots in the final round, including a couple of not-so-good bunker shots. That’s not the norm for him. While Phil was missing in action at Birkdale, his performance here means he’s primed to be a factor at Oakland Hills.
Westwood has a history of not being a strong closer. Recently, he failed to hit a wedge shot close on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open and missed the playoff by a shot. On Sunday, he missed a birdie putt to tie for the lead at the 71st hole. It was an eight-footer but it had a lot of break. He played a nice wedge to the 18th, but his birdie attempt, a do-or-die effort, was dead as soon as it left the putter face. Still, he’s playing well enough to win a major if only Tiger wasn’t around … hey, wait a minute.
Firestone is a good gauge for the PGA because it features firm, fast greens and narrow, tree-lined fairways. The greens at Oakland Hills are way crazier than Firestone’s, but both courses are very demanding. The men who played well at Firestone are the men to watch out for at Oakland Hills. Tiger, meanwhile, has to be shaking his head in front of his big-screen TV. Hey, there’s always next year.