The time has come. After Tiger Woods put up a ridiculous 61 on Friday and followed it with a not-as-ridiculous-but-still-strong 68 in the third round Saturday, many in the Bridgestone Invitational field are turning their eyes to next weekend’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.
A seven-time champion at Firestone has a 7-shot lead heading into the fourth round in Akron. Several players in the field say eventually, most of the attention would switch anyway. Woods’ dominance just made it easier.
“I started thinking about next week last Sunday,” said Graeme McDowell, who is 3 over for the tournament and in a tie for 36th place. “This is a WGC, take nothing away from it, but I think everyone’s got at least half an eye on next week. When you get in the stage where you’re in the middle of the pack, you’ve got half an eye on it. I’m working hard on my game, using this week as a real springboard for next week. It’s inevitable for most players.”
Adam Scott, who shot a 4-under 66 Saturday to move to 3 under for the tournament, good enough for a tie for ninth place, has been practicing more than usual before and after his rounds. He normally practices at home for a major, but the Bridgestone Invitational is a big enough tournament that he can’t skip it just to prepare. But the tournament itself is a good measuring stick heading into the year’s final major.
“This week’s very important for so many reasons other than just a world event,” Scott said Saturday. “It’s preparing everyone here for the PGA. You get a good grasp of where your game’s at. You’ve got to use this week.”
Luke Donald had another strong day, shooting a 68 and moving to 2 shots off the pace for second place at 6 under overall. For Donald, it’s all about feeling good.
“We try to have a solid week this week and bring some confidence in, but you’re also working a bit harder here,” Donald said, saying Firestone is a tough enough test on its own. “And after the round, you’re spending a little more time trying to fine tune your game hoping next week will be a little better.”
Woods’ 61 breakdown
Tiger Woods shot a 4-under 66 Thursday, a strong effort that put him just outside the lead. Then Friday, he all but won the tournament by tying the course record and his personal-best round with a 61. Here’s how he did it, and how it compared with his first-round performance.
By a couple of measurements, Woods actually played better Thursday than during his record-tying round Friday. In the first round, he hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation, only missing the 11th and 16th greens. In the second, he hit both of those greens in regulation but only 13 for the round. He was also more accurate off the tee, hitting 10 fairways Thursday compared to only nine Friday.
He wasn’t as straight in his drives and didn’t give himself as many birdie chances. But he was longer off the tee, he stuck the ball closer to the pin on his approaches and was hot with the putter.
He averaged 305.6 yards off the tee in the second round, 14 more yards per hole than in the first (291.1). He was also, on average, putting the ball from four feet closer to the pin (18 feet, 8 inches compared to 22 feet, 10 inches away) after his approaches. The biggest indicator: He needed eight fewer putts on Friday (22 to 30) and his average distance on putts made was nearly 8 feet compared to just over 3 feet on Thursday.
What it comes down to: He didn’t give himself as many scoring chances but through the first 13 holes took advantage of every one he had and stayed out of trouble for the rest of the round, most notably with his 26-foot putt to save par after being in the trees on No. 18.
Sergio Garcia angry
During the second round Friday, Sergio Garcia was falling almost as fast as Woods was rising. Garcia shot a 6-over 76, or 15 strokes worse than Woods in 18 holes.
Garcia rebounded a bit Saturday, shooting an even-par 70. But that didn’t matter. He was still angry.
After his round, Garcia walked by the flash-zone area where a stand is set up for TV interviews. He punched one of the microphones and then when asked about his round, said, “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Unlikely best round
Charl Schwartzel started the day 8 over par for the tournament and was looking at a finish outside the top 70. He then rattled off a bogey-free 64 Saturday, the best round of the day, to climb all the way to a tie for 28th. When asked how he did it, Schwartzel bluntly said, “I don’t know.” But he did say he was more relaxed, starting a round more than 20 shots off the lead.
“Twenty-one shots behind, you’ve got nothing to lose,” Schwartzel said. “Today, my misses were in the right places. I made some nice putts from 10 feet, 12 feet. Those are the ones you need to build on a score. ... I’m still 15 shots behind, 17 shots behind. It’s nothing spectacular. ... It’s something to build on.”
Not a lot of people know of a player named Kiradech Aphibarnrat. In the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, his photo isn’t even available. He appears on only the European Tour’s website, and he’s 5-foot-8 and listed at 106 kilograms (that’s about 233 pounds if you left your conversion charts at home).
But he’s here, trudging around Firestone in a bright blue golf shirt with a name many people will try to pronounce but few will succeed. If there’s anything to notice about him, it’s his scores the past three rounds (69-68-73) that have him in a tie for 17th place. He has shot the same score as Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose in his first time at Firestone.
“For the first two rounds, [I played] good, then today I was struggling a bit with the driver but it’s a good start for me,” Aphibarnrat said. “This course is very tough. I didn’t play very well but even par is a good score for me.”
Aphibarnrat has some friends from Thailand, where he’s from, here in Akron for support. He says everything is going well, and they’ve helped.
It’s been quite the dream of his to play in the same field as Woods, his childhood hero. Aphibarnrat was excited to be on the course as Woods put together his superb round on Friday.
“He was always my favorite player, Tiger,” he said. “Yesterday, he was — I could not believe he shot 9 under on this type of course. I like to play in the same field as him. It’s a pleasure for me.”
Five young men from Northeast Ohio spent Thursday night thrift-store shopping in the women’s department to re-create the costumes worn by Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler and Ben Crane in their Golf Boys videos.
They arrived Friday at Firestone in full gear. Aaron Port, 19, of Parma (fur vest, Mahan); Mark Brower, 19, of Hudson (overalls, Watson); Zach Longo, 18, Cuyahoga Falls (orange Puma, golfer Fowler); Daniel Criswell, 20, Chagrin Falls (black outfit, Fowler), and Peter Richards, 19, Chagrin Falls (helmet, Crane), received a warm reception from Fowler. He posed for a picture taken by his caddie and chatted with the group briefly near the clubhouse after Fowler finished signing autographs.
“Pretty good. Thanks for coming out, you guys. Are you here on the weekend, too?” Fowler said.
Last year, the group walked the course together and decided something “crazy” was in order for this year. All agreed it paid off.
“I was nervous to wear this out here, I thought we were going to get in trouble,” Port said. “I’m glad I did.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Bridgestone Invitational blog at http://www.ohio.com/blogs/bridgestone-invitational. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ. and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.