With just one week to go before the year's final major, the US PGA Championship, a stellar field assembles in Ohio where Tiger Woods is yet again the man to beat. Read Steve's comprehensive preview of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational here...
"Ohio-born Jason Dufner looks to have just the right game and profile for this. He was 4th at the US Open recently and he was 7th on his event debut last year when he topped the par 4 performance stats."
The Bridgestone Invitational started life as the World Series of Golf, back in 1976. It's the third of four World Golf Championship events staged throughout the year and it first became a WGC event in 1999.
The qualifying criteria, detailed here, is quite extensive but it's basically an event for the world's top-50, last year's Ryder Cuppers and tournament winners over the last 12 months. In short, it's a high-quality, select field event.
Firestone Country Club (South Course), Akron, Ohio
Par 70 -7,400 yards
Stroke Index in 2012 - 69.89
Originally designed by Bert Wray in 1928, Robert Trent Jones completely remodelled the South Course at Firestone in 1960, before Jack Nicklaus did some touch-up work in 1986.
It's very long for a par 70 at 7,400 yards and with seven par fours measuring at least 464 yards, unsurprisingly, it's the longest par 70 encountered on the PGA Tour. The signature hole is the 667 yard par 5 16th, which is the longest hole played in any non-major and last year it averaged over par.
The fairways are fairly generous and straight, with very few doglegs, but it's very important to find them in order to attack the fast (over 13 on the stimpmeter), small bentgrass and poa annua mixed greens.
Last Five Winners
2012 - Keegan Bradley - 13
2011 - Adam Scott -17
2010 - Hunter Mahan -12
2009 - Tiger Woods -12
2008 - Vijay Singh -10
What will it take to win the Bridgestone Invitational?
Finding the greens is the key to success at Firestone. On the 13 occasions this event has been played as a WGC event here, 10 of the winners have ranked inside the top-ten for greens in regulation. Last year's winner, Keegan Bradley ranked just 12th but he was the only player in the top-six that didn't rank inside the top-ten.
You have to make lots and lots of birdies - Bradley made 23 last year! Four of the last six winners have led the field in birdies and all six have ranked inside the top-three.
Is there an angle in?
The US Masters and the WGC-Cadillac Championship look the best pointers. The last ten winners all finished inside the top-30 at Augusta earlier in the year and six of the last seven had finished inside the top-ten at Doral.
Course form looks very important and the last three winners all won a year after putting up their best show at Firestone. Bradley had only been here once before and had finished 15th, Adam Scott won in 2001, having finished inside the top-ten for the first time in 2010 and when Hunter Mahan captured the title in 2010, his previous form figures read 3-10-22.
Is there an identikit winner?
It's perhaps obvious that in an event limited to the world's elite that the winner is usually top-class but the fact that Mahan is the only winner at Firestone (since it became a WGC event) that hasn't won a major is quite striking. And judging by his recent performances at the US Open and the Open Championship, it might not be that long before he wins one.
Look to players that have either won a major or that have the obvious potential to do so.
Two thirds of the holes at Firestone averaged over par last year and the six holes that didn't were all played in the first 11. The par 5 2nd at just 526 yards is a genuine eagle chance but the 3rd and 4th holes are both tough and I'd suggest the scoring section is between holes 5 and 12. After that it gets tough...
Although the par 5 16th is a real monster, it's actually the only respite the players get on a very tough finishing stretch, so if you're trading in-running, bear that in mind. Once through the 12th, it's more a case of holding onto your score than looking to improve on it.
The first thing to consider when looking at this event is do you or don't you play Tiger Woods? The case for is quite compelling. He's been in fine form so far in 2013 and he repeatedly plays well at his favourite venues, and this is one of them. Or should that be was one of them?
Having already finished in the places several times, Tiger went on an incredible run here, winning seven times and finishing 4th and 2nd in nine starts between 1999 and 2009 (he missed the 2008 renewal because of injury) but since 2010 his form figures read a confusing 78-37-8. It's hard to put your finger on why his form's dipped but I have my theories. I think its combination of three factors...
Since 2007 the event has been played in the week preceding the year's final major, the US PGA Championship, and not after, as was the case prior to 2007. Tiger doesn't like to play the week before a major but he's not going to sit-out an event of this magnitude so he's always going to play here but I do wonder if even the tiniest fraction of his concentration is on the following week's major?
Another reason for the downturn in Woods' fortunes here could be the way the course now plays. Now that it precedes the PGA, although they want a stern test, the players don't want it brutally tough and the set-up is definitely a bit easier than it once was.
When Woods won in 2007, he was the only player to finish the event under-par but last year 27 players broke par and, in 2011 when Scott won with a huge 17-under-par total, 32 players (almost half the field) finished in the red. It stands to reason that the harder the set-up the more it will suit the best players and before his injury in 2008, Tiger was by some distance the very best. And that leads on to factor number three. Quite simply, he's not the force he once was.
All things considered, I don't see any value in his current price. He won't be able to get away with leaving the driver in the bag (as he tried to do at Muirfield) here and I'd have wanted at least 7.06/1 to even think about backing him.
Second favourite, Phil Mickelson, is another player to have lost his way at Firestone. He won here way back in 1996 and finished runner-up in the three years that followed his win but in the last ten years he's only once finished inside the top-20.
Lefty is in the form of his life and he's lining up this week in search of a third straight win but it's a huge ask just two weeks after his biggest ever win and he has to be left out of equations before the off.
I've struggled to find a strong fancy but I have picked out two before the off.
Ohio-born Jason Dufner looks to have just the right game and profile for this. He was 4th at the US Open recently and lost a playoff to last year's winner, Bradley, at the US PGA Championship in 2011, so he's knocking at the door in the majors and he has course form to boot. He was 7th on his event debut last year when he topped the par 4 performance stats but played the par 5's in over par and I thought he was fairly priced at 65.064/1.
Angel Cabrera has finished inside the top-four in three of his last seven visits to Firestone and he's in good heart again this year, with his playoff loss to Adam Scott at the US Masters the highlight. If he's had a weakness this term it's been with the putter but it's noticeable that his best effort on the greens came at lightning -quick Augusta, where he ranked 10th, so he might just enjoy the faster surface again this week.
Jason Dufner @ 65.064/1
Angel Cabrera @ 75.074/1