DUBLIN, Ohio — Rory McIlroy briefly pondered and rejected the notion that it might be 20 years before he tees off on the South Course at Firestone Country Club again.
“I might play there, maybe not in a competitive tournament,” McIlroy said Friday.
The PGA Tour left Akron after the 2018 Bridgestone Invitational, ending a run that began with the 1954 Rubber City Open. The event will be replaced by the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship, one of five PGA Tour Champions majors, which runs July 11-14.
The change is massive in the loss of prestige, not to mention a good bulk of the economic impact, estimated as high as $30 million for the area by some studies.
Players understand the move to Memphis, Tennessee, headquarters of FedEx, which requested the World Golf Championship in exchange for its sponsorship of the FedEx Cup playoffs through 2027, according to a December report by Golf Digest. But when asked about the PGA Tour abandoning Akron, “It’s a shame” was the general consensus of those questioned Friday and Saturday at the Memorial Tournament.
That included McIlroy, who won the Bridgestone in 2014, a season that included two of his four major victories.
“I’m very much going to miss Firestone — it was one of my favorite events of the year,” McIroy said at Muirfield Village Golf Club. “I loved going there, I loved the golf course, I loved the feel of it. Fans were great. Yeah, the over-50 guys will enjoy themselves there the next few years. Hopefully, we get back at some stage.
“I think it was one of the better courses on tour and it’s a shame for us to not play it anymore.”
Rickie Fowler finished in the top 10 in five of his nine appearances in the Bridgestone, including a tie for second in 2011.
“I always loved Firestone. It was an amazing place to get to play,” Fowler said. “The hospitality, the guys in the locker room, they always took great care of us. The fans were great. Loved the golf course. It’s a bummer we’re not going back.
“They have a really good navy bean soup in the locker room clubhouse. I’m going to miss that. It’s a very historic site for the PGA Tour, and it would be nice to see it down the road back in the schedule. For now we’ll miss it and hopefully get it back.”
McIlroy and Fowler, both 30, think the decision on Akron might be revisited, but that seems unlikely. "It's over," a source told Golf Digest for an April 2018 story when asked about any future PGA Tour prospects for Firestone.
Bridgestone, meanwhile, will sponsor the Senior Players for four years.
Harold Varner III, 28, was born in Akron and lived there until his parents moved the family to Gastonia, North Carolina, when he was 6. Although the last WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was his first, Varner understands the tour economics that cost his hometown its golf gem.
“It’s super disappointing, but the PGA Tour is going to do what’s best for them, which is what’s best for me,” Varner said. “It’s disappointing in the fact that I got to do it one time and I know how much fun it was. I guess I’ll be there when I’m like 50. Geez.
“It’s a great event. I just think obviously FedEx is putting up so much money, you’ve got to kind of do something for them. I was bummed to hear that, but ... we’ll be all right.”
Ellie Day had avoided the sadness over Akron’s loss of the Bridgestone, mainly because of the juggled and condensed tour schedule that is making her family’s life more hectic.
The fact that Ohio now has only one PGA Tour event didn’t sink in until Friday, when her husband, Jason Day, missed the cut at the Memorial. Ellie Day grew up in Lucas, near Mansfield, met Jason while working in Twinsburg, and several family members still live in the Buckeye State.
“Somebody was just saying, ‘When will we see you again at an event?’ And they’re like, ‘Akron, oh, wait, no, just kidding,’ ” Ellie Day said. “I looked forward to that every year. It’s such a good event. It’s a real bummer, and I know everybody up there is bummed about it, too.”
Jason Day echoed his wife’s thoughts, saying, “I’m going to miss Akron a lot. I guess the senior guys are going to have a good time there, but it’s kind of sad because I actually really loved that tournament.”
Adam Scott, who won the 2011 Bridgestone, compared his feelings about Firestone to what the players went through with the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral, last played in 2016.
A PGA Tour event had been played on the famed Blue Monster for 55 years; only Augusta National with the Masters had a longer continuous run on the same course. A loss of sponsorship was reportedly the reason, and with that WGC moved to Mexico City.
“It is disappointing. We went through this same kind of feeling with Doral a few years ago after going there many, many years,” Scott said. “I think it is going to be the same with Akron. We’re going to miss it because it was such a great event, it was one that you felt privileged to be in and it was a helluva golf course to try and beat any given week.”
Former world No. 1 Luke Donald said he liked being in the Bridgestone field because “it means you’re in the top 50 in the world.”
Of the loss of Akron as a tour stop, Donald said, “It’s always disappointing, I’m sure for the local community, too, and everything it did for that. It was always a fun course and produced a lot of really good winners. Tiger obviously dominated that tournament. I’m sure it will be missed.”
Justin Rose said Muirfield and Firestone are two of his favorite courses on tour.
“I think the Seniors are going there, aren’t they, so at least it lives on a little,” Rose said of Firestone’s history. “It’s a shame we won’t be going back.”
Jay Haas, 65, a member of the Champions Tour, is excited to return to Firestone, but understands the disappointment of those playing the PGA Tour, which includes his son, Bill.
“The Ohio area, Chicago area ... there’s so many great, great golf courses, I guess there’s only so many to go around,” Haas said before the Bridgestone Senior Players media day May 13 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “I’m sure major tournaments will be coming back here to the Ohio area. We played the Senior PGA [in 2009] at Canterbury. There’s so many good golf courses in this area, it’s a shame we don’t play more.”
Steve Stricker, 52, hadn’t qualified for the Bridgestone Invitational since 2014. Now playing both the PGA and the Champions tours, Stricker isn’t sure he will return to Firestone this year because it’s opposite the John Deere Classic, which he’s won three consecutive times starting in 2009.
“I don’t really know where I’m going yet, but I’ve got two really good options — John Deere, where I like to go, and Firestone, which is a great test. I’ve had a couple high finishes there and enjoy playing there,” Stricker said. “I loved the place, it was always a special week. Small field, no cut, good course and it was always in great shape. You felt like you were playing a special event.”
Tiger Woods, 43, who won eight times at Firestone, joked after he birdied the 18th hole last August that “it was a good way to end it, at least for another eight more years.”
When it was suggested to Fowler that he won’t play Firestone South until he turns 50, Fowler replied, “It’s better than nothin.’ ”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.