Tiger returns to Bridgestone — and a course he’s dominated like no other

December 10, 2011

Tiger Woods last won on the PGA Tour at the BMW Championship on Sept. 13, 2009, which means it's been 325 days, one major for Phil, one for Graeme and one for Louis since he lifted a trophy most fans care about.

Even for a guy coping with the aftermath of dropping his personal life into a Cuisinart, Woods seems due for a W.

He is ninth in Ryder Cup points, which means he would require a pick from U.S. captain Corey Pavin, and he's 111th in the FedEx Cup standings, which means unless he does something good in the next month, Woods won't make it past the first playoff event, the Barclays, Aug. 26-29.

When was the last time golf threw a party and Tiger Woods wasn't invited?

And so this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club's South Course, where Woods has won seven tournaments worth $9.35 million, could not come at a better time. Isleworth is his real home course; Firestone is his home away from home. His 181-yard 8-iron to within a foot on the 16th hole to ice the '09 Bridgestone was typical.

In his 10 starts at Firestone since 1999 (he missed the 2008 tournament after knee surgery), Woods has finished no worse than a tie for fourth. He's averaged 67.5 over 40 rounds, 29 of which have been in the 60s. He shares the course record, 61, with Jose Maria Olazabal, and invented the Bridgestone Blizzak LM-50 Run Flat tire. (Wait! Not true! Although perhaps Woods was studying such things in John Gribbin's "Get a Grip on Physics.")

Augusta National, Bay Hill, Muirfield Village, Torrey Pines and St. Andrews have all seemed like Tiger's personal playgrounds, but none of them, with the possible exception of Torrey (six regular Tour victories, one U.S. Open, a Junior World), is a better match for Tiger's talents than Firestone.

"Certain courses you just feel comfortable," Woods said after his win there in '09, when he and Padraig Harrington were put on the clock on the 16th tee. They promptly made a legendary birdie (Tiger's aforementioned 8-iron) and a triple-bogey 8. "You see the tee shots, you see the approach shots, and the greens seem to be easier to read than others. This golf course is one of those for me. I think my results kind of show that."

That's a ridiculous understatement, but whether Tiger 2010 can tame the 7,400-yard, par-70 track is another matter. Driving woes plagued him at the beginning of the year. Now it's his putting. For at least the first two rounds he will be paired with Lee Westwood, who would assume the top spot in the ranking if he finishes second alone, Woods finishes worse than ninth and Mickelson doesn't win.

Mickelson, who will be paired with Rory McIlroy, would become No. 1 with a victory no matter what Woods does, or a top-four finish if Woods winds up outside the top 37. That seems beyond unlikely. Mickelson's best result at Firestone was his solo second in 1999, and Woods is usually at his best on the Bert Way/Robert Trent Jones design, which features the longest hole on Tour, the 667-yard 16th.

Not that this is a usual year. Woods has parted with his swing coach and his putter, reuniting only with the latter. He has looked as lost on the course as he's looked off it.

Meanwhile Graeme McDowell at the U.S. Open and Louis Oosthuizen at the British have taken advantage of the vacancy at the top. And Europeans have staged a slow, steady takeover of the World Ranking, holding down 11 of the first 20 spots.

Colin Montgomerie's Ryder Cup 12 could wind up being golf's version of the Dream Team, the loaded 1992 U.S. men's basketball squad. Pavin's side could be Angola.

Then again, nothing is for certain. Until last Thanksgiving you could count on Woods winning at least five tournaments a year, just as you could count on lesser American golfers to shrug their shoulders as if to say, "What do you want from me? He's Tiger Woods!"

But the rest of the Americans have disappeared even in his absence, winning just four of the last 15 tournaments on Tour.

The trend could continue at Firestone, because of the select, 82-player field (no cut), culled from the six circuits of the International Federation of PGA Tours. Fifty-one of the players hail from outside the United States.

This is a big week not only for Woods, but also for all Americans.

The country's best young player, Anthony Kim, 25, returns from three months of inaction after a thumb surgery and will be paired with Oosthuizen for the first two rounds. Kim said Tuesday he'd never heard of Oosthuizen when he turned on the TV to catch some of the British Open last month. Kim also joked about the flurry of 59s and 60s that were shot in his absence, especially in the last month.

"I guess everyone has gotten a lot better since I've been away," he said.

Stewart Cink has played in the last three Ryder Cups but is languishing at 13th in the U.S. standings. He's won at Firestone (2004) and finished second to Woods in a rousing sudden-death playoff ('06). Cink needs to mobilize now.

So does his ski buddy Zach Johnson, who has finished in the top 16 four times in six starts at Firestone. Johnson is 20th in Ryder points and will need to show something in the next month to justify a captain's pick.

Then there's Mickelson, who has all but disappeared since winning the Masters, and Woods, who hasn't played like the No. 1 player since winning the Australian Masters in mid-November, right before his world imploded.

Among the majors, only next week's PGA Championship remains, and if Woods doesn't win that one, he'll have gone two-plus years without a victory in the big four. Whistling Straits is not his favorite track; he tied for 24th there at the '04 PGA.

If he's going to make 2010 a year to remember for even one good thing, this is Tiger's time, this is his week. As they say in Akron, this is where the rubber meets the road.

• Charles Howell III and South Africans Brendon de Jonge (third at Greenbrier) and Rory Sabbatini headline the Tour's Turning Stone Resort Championship in Verona, N.Y., for those who didn't get into the Bridgestone.

• Minnesotan Tom Lehman will be the people's choice at the Champions Tour's 3M Championship at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minn. But Bernhard Langer, who won the senior British and U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks and is the defending 3M champion, will be the heavy favorite.

Admission for the week will be free for all fans for the second straight year.

• The Nationwide tour's Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open at Crestview C.C., in Wichita, Kan., has featured among its prominent winners Lehman (1990), David Duval ('93) and David Toms ('96).