Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 5, 2018

One Last Time Around Firestone For The PGA Tour

The first eighteen holes at Firestone Country Club opened in August 1929. Harvey Firestone, founder of the tire company that still bears his name, conceived of the club as an escape for employees of his company. Nearly nine decades later, the private club in Akron, Ohio, known to golf fans everywhere by the iconic red and white water tower that looks like a golf ball sitting on a tee, boasts three courses for its members, as well as a nine-hole course open to the public. The original layout, designed by Englishman Bert Way and remodeled by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1960, is now the South Course. Jones was also responsible for the North Course, which opened in 1969. The West Course’s original routing was done by the team of Geoffrey Cornish and Brian Silva in 1989, with a major redesign by Tom Fazio in 2002. In short, Firestone’s courses are all products of legends of golf course architecture.

That helps explain why Firestone has hosted PGA Tour events for sixty-five years, and why the stop in small-market Akron has always been popular with Tour players. The Rubber City Open, later the Rubber City Invitational, was played for six years beginning in 1954. Then in 1960 Firestone hosted the first of its three PGA Championships, with the other two coming in 1966 and 1975. After that initial major, the Tour’s annual visit to Akron was renamed the American Golf Classic and staged from 1961 through 1976 except for the two years when the PGA Championship returned to Firestone.

During those years Firestone also hosted the World Series of Golf, a made-for-television thirty-six-hole exhibition featuring the reigning champions of the four majors. Starting in 1976, the tournament became an official PGA Tour event, played over the regulation seventy-two holes and with a field that started at twenty and eventually grew to include winners of tournaments from all the major global tours. The 1976 edition, played on the South Course the week following the last American Golf Classic was completed on the North Course, offered a top prize of $100,000, more than twice the payday of any of that year’s four majors. Jack Nicklaus took home the big check, one year after he had captured the PGA Championship over the same layout.

The World Series of Golf eventually morphed into one of the four annual World Golf Championships events, each of which has limited fields representing the world’s top players. The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational sets its field based on world rankings, victories on the participating tours, and membership on the most recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. This year that resulted in a field of 71 players taking on Firestone’s South Course as well as each other.

On paper the WGC-Bridgestone looked like the ideal opportunity for the closely watched comeback of Tiger Woods to finally reach its goal of returning the greatest golfer of his generation to the winner’s circle. To say that Firestone’s South Course suits his eye is a gross understatement. Woods has won this event a record eight times, and three of those victories have been runaways. In 2000 he won for the second time and set the tournament record of 21-under par while winning by eleven shots. Seven years later his sixth WGC-Bridgestone title was by eight shots over Justin Rose and Rory Sabbatini. Five years ago, he captured his most recent win at Firestone, or anywhere else, finishing seven ahead of Keegan Bradley and Henrik Stenson.

The early signs were encouraging for Woods and the predictably huge galleries following his play. He opened with a 4-under par 66 and followed that up with a 68, to sit at 6-under at the tournament’s midpoint. That left him five adrift of a three-way tie at the top of the leader board, but Woods leads the Tour this season in third round scoring average. That stat along with his track record at Firestone had fans dreaming of a weekend surge. Instead they were reminded of both how great the challenge is for the 42-year-old Woods, and the depth of talent on the Tour. Woods made just one birdie in his third round, while dropping strokes on four holes to finish with a 3-over par 73. On Sunday he matched that number with a particularly ugly final nine that included two double bogeys. The weekend of poor play dropped him all the way down into a tie for 31st in the tournament’s final standings.

But while Woods was struggling the leader board had plenty of star power, with the likes of Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day all near the top. They were joined on Sunday by Dustin Johnson and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, both of whom posted good scores early to gain ground. But in the end, there was little drama. Thomas had moved three shots clear of the field on Saturday, and as the course hardened and scoring became more difficult Sunday afternoon, Firestone showed its teeth and made it all but impossible for anyone to mount a charge. Thomas coasted home with a 1-under 69, good for a 15-under total and a four-shot margin over Kyle Stanley.

With that the PGA Tour departed Firestone Country Club, not until next year but for good. All the club’s history with the Tour, the constant support of huge Ohio galleries and the appreciation of the layout by so many Tour players was outweighed by the demands of one of the Tour’s major sponsors. As a condition of renewing its support for the season-long points race that culminates in the awarding of the FedEx Cup, the package delivery service wanted an upgrade in the tournament held near its Memphis headquarters. The St. Jude Classic has been a fixture on the Tour’s calendar for decades, but the timing of the event has led to weak fields. Starting next season this WGC tournament will move to TPC Southwind and be renamed the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

The consolation prize for Firestone is a four-year commitment to stage the Senior Players Championship on the South Course, beginning next July. While the Senior Players is one of five majors on the Champions Tour, the reality is that the thirty million dollars that the WGC-Bridgestone annually pumped into the Akron economy is about to shrink dramatically. After his disappointing weekend Woods said “I’m going to miss playing here, I’m going to miss the people. I’ve had so many great memories and it’s just sad we’re not coming back here anymore.” No doubt golf fans in northeastern Ohio, and anyone who appreciates the history of the game, would agree.


  1. Good column. Chuck

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Money talks and tournaments walk. What a shame.

  3. Thanks for this – really nice piece!



    • Thanks Don!


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