With the seasons final major just a week away, the game’s biggest and brightest head to Akron, Ohio this week in search of World Golf Championship silverware at the lengthy Firestone Country Club. The 7,400 yard par 70 has played host to the Bridgestone Invitational since 1999, and is consistently amongst the most difficult tracks faced by the players each season; a combination of extreme length, water hazards and rapid, small greens ensuring all facets of players’ games are severely examined.
The market is headed by 2017 Open Champion Jordan Spieth, who will be looking to follow in the footsteps of Dustin Johnson (2016) and Rory McIlroy (2014) in winning this tournament straight off the back of a major victory. Indeed, only two renewals of this tournament have been won by non-major champions – although a certain Tiger Woods does account for eight titles here – so this is a venue where the cream very much rises to the top.
As with the other WGC events, there is no cut this week, with all 76 players in the field guaranteed 72 holes and at least $20,000 in prize money. Given the guaranteed cash and the events proximity to the US PGA Championship, it is likely that those who do not get off to a good start will switch their focus to next week – a suggestion supported by the stats which show that only three of the past 10 winners of this event sat outside the top 3 at the halfway mark. This is worth bearing in mind if you are looking to trade the event over the weekend.
As previously mentioned, the course is exceptionally long for a par 70 and even with just two par 5s to score on, there has been a significant advantage for bombers at Firestone over the years. This is likely to be exacerbated further this week as heavy rain and thunderstorms are forecast for the first half of the week so the course will be softer and feel even longer. As a result, driving distance is going to play as our first key stat this week in terms of locating the winner.
Our next key stat will be Stokes Gained: Approaching-The-Green (SG:ATG). In terms of the winners this decade, only Keegan Bradley ranked outside the top 10 for Greens in Regulation (he was 12th) and all bar McIlroy ranked in the top 10 for putts per GIR (he was 14th). The SG:ATG goes some way to merge those two stats as it highlights the players who score best following their approach shots, so players ranking highly in this category should go very well this week.
Finally, I’m looking to side with players with a solid previous record at Firestone. Shane Lowry (2015) is somewhat of an outlier in that he is the only previous winner in the past decade who hadn’t recorded at least a prior top 20 at the course. I’ve already mentioned Tiger’s eight wins here but Rory also had three prior top 10s before his win, Adam Scott had a pair of top 10s prior to his 2011 success and Hunter Mahan also had twin top 10s before his 2010 victory.
Clearly a horses for courses layout.
Given the aforementioned statistics, there is only one place to begin my staking plan – last year’s champion Dustin Johnson. There was no one hotter in the golfing universe than DJ leading up to the Masters, as he’d reeled off victories in the Genesis Open and both of the year’s prior WGC events – the Mexico Championship and Dell Match-Play. Sadly, a slip on the stairs of his rental home took him out of action for six weeks and he has since struggled to regain his form. However, last week’s Canadian Open saw him record his first top 10 finish since the Wells Fargo in May and in the final round he looked to be returning to his best as he shot a bogey free 67 (-5). He currently leads the Tour in driving distance and ranks third in SG:ATG and these stats combined with his victory here last year marks him out as a standout bet at 12.0.
My next best is Jon Rahm. The 22 year old Spaniard is a first timer at Bridgestone but the course looks tailor made for the man who has risen to 6th in the world in just 13 months as a professional. The prodigy from the Basque Country is very long off the tee ranking 16th on Tour in driving distance, enters the week 4th in SG:ATG, and will not be daunted by the prospect of competing in the elite company of a World Golf Championship event, as his two WGC results to date read: tied 3rd – runner up. He is less than a month removed from his six shot win at the Irish Open and looks well over priced at 27, given he went off about 8 points shorter for The Open on his last start in a bigger field and did little wrong.
The final bet I am having this week is on Kevin Chappell. The Dustin Johnson lookalike finally broke through for his first PGA Tour victory earlier this season at the Valero Texas Open, having previously recorded four runner up finishes in the prior 18 months (including at big events like The Players and The Tour Championship). In that period he also finished tied 3rd here on debut last season and tied for 7th in just his second Masters appearance so clearly he is a man with the temperament to perform on the game’s biggest stages. He arrives this week off the back of a top 10 finish at the Canadian Open and ranks in the top 30 of both the driving distance and SG:ATG stats for the year.
- 3 points – Dustin Johnson @ 12.0
- 2 points – Jon Rahm @ 27.0
- 1 point – Kevin Chappell @ 61.0