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Phil Mickelson signs autographs for fans during Wednesday's practice round at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. (Photo: Amey Fink)

Bridgestone Invitational brings world's best golfers to eastern Ohio

by Zac Weiss

It is the time of year where many quality events are crammed onto the PGA Tour schedule, and this week is no exception as the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational visits Akron, Ohio, once again.

The field consists of just over 70 players vying for the $1.4 million first-place check while also fine tuning their games for the PGA Championship, the fourth and final major of the year.

Last year Keegan Bradley rallied from four strokes off the lead to defeat Jim Furyk by one stroke. The victory included a big putt on the 72nd and final hole of play to take the lead.

This year, both are back along with seven-time winner of the event Tiger Woods as well as the previous three major champions in Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose and Adam Scott.

The course they will play is Firestone Country Club South Course which is a par-70 course and measures 7,400 yards. Many of these players are familiar with the course and the challenge it possesses.

The most notable challenge is the par-5 16th hole that measures out to 667 yards. It is a three-shot hole, featuring is a water hazard just short of the green. The hardest hole last year was the par-4 fourth. It measures 471 yards, yet just 23 birdies were recorded on the hole over the four days of play.

Inside the ropes:

Rain, rain, stay away

There does not appear to be much bad weather on the way for the tournament and that suits the golfers just fine, especially considering many rounds have been postponed or stopped due to inclement weather.

“The course is in great condition,” D.A. Points said. “If the rains stays away it will be really nice.”

Struggling McIlroy hopeful for good week

It may come as a surprise to many that once top-ranked Rory McIlroy has not been in the winner’s circle yet this year. This has led to some harsh words regarding his change in equipment and dedication to the game from Nick Faldo and Gary Player among others.

Rory McIlroy prepares to tee off during Wednesday’s practice round at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. (Photo: Amey Fink)

McIlroy was unfamiliar with Player’s remarks although he has been hearing more and more voices this season.

McIlroy is hopeful though that he can get hot again at Firestone where he tied for fifth place last year and started a string of successful tournaments.

“I feel like it’s a tournament I can win,” McIlroy said. “I’ve always had a good feeling when I’ve come here and I’ve always played well. The game definitely feels like it’s coming on.”

Grace hopes to amaze at Firestone

Coming into the Bridgestone Invitational last year, Branden Grace and Woods were the lone golfers with three wins on the season. They were paired together for much of the tournament and had nothing but great things to say about each other.

Grace was feeling plenty of momentum following the wins and great vibes going into last year’s event.

“It’s something I looked forward to since I’ve started playing golf,” he said. “Things like that can take your game to the next level.”

Grace wound up winning once more last year but has not been able to raise another trophy this year. Still, his consistency has been there as he wound up in a playoff with Mickelson three weeks ago in the Scottish Open. Despite losing the playoff, Grace feels optimistic about his game and likes his chances to do well.

“The swing is there, it showed in the Scottish,” Grace said. “This golf course suits me. The main thing is on the greens. If you make a couple of putts, you never know.”

Mickelson prepares for PGA Championship

Since winning the Open Championship last month, Mickelson has been a busy man. He was in New York last week with his learning academy and his family was joined on the tour by an additional guest that also made the trip to Akron: the Claret Jug.

“It’s here with me, it’s not like I’m going to leave it,” Mickelson said. “I’ll have some of my friends throughout these next couple of weeks be able to drink out of it. That’s a cool experience that not many get to do.”

Mickelson also discussed his confidence level which even before and immediately following his loss at the U.S. Open was at an all-time high.

“I’m playing as well as I ever have and want to make sure I stay focused this week and next week because I think there is an opportunity to add to this year and make this year every bit as special as it can be,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson also talked about something he never had shared before regarding his U.S. Open defeat.

“When I woke up (Sunday), I had dreamt that I had already won the U.S. Open, and so I had the same feelings and excitement that I had won,” Mickelson said. “I finally won the U.S. Open. It was such a great feeling, and it took me over a minute to realize that I haven’t played the final round and that I’ve got to go out and still do it.”

“Every day I wake up in the last nine days, I look at the trophy to make sure that I haven’t just dreamt that, that I actually did win it and I actually played the final round. It’s just one of those little weird things that we all go through.”

They said it:

In his press conference, I asked Mickelson which was more meaningful, making the putt on the last hole to win the Open Championship after taking 20 years to dedicate himself to links golf, or his putt to win the Masters when he got the monkey off his back and won his first major. This was his answer:

“The emotion of winning my first major, winning a green jacket and being part of that history is something I’ll always cherish and always have a place in my heart as being such a great achievement,” Mickelson said. “I always felt that about the Masters because I played so well for so many years. I knew when I showed up at Augusta I was going to have a chance to win.”

“I didn’t have that same feeling obviously at the British Open. I had a very erratic performance. It’s taken me a while over the course of my career to not just hit the golf ball low, but to hit it low without spin. That’s the challenge.”

When the follow up came of the image he’ll remember 20 or 30 years from now, he went back to the two previously mentioned majors.

“I think it will always be the ’04 Masters and showing off my Olympic jumping ability. Then for me personally, the British Open is the greatest accomplishment I could ever get in my career because of the shots I had to learn and the challenge that it created for me over the course of my career. It was so difficult for me to play my best golf in the British Open under those conditions than any other tournament to win. That is the greatest accomplishment for me in my career.”

Grace on whether playing with Woods is as intimidating as it once was: “I think the guys in the past have been more intimidated by him than now. Still he’s not No. 1 in the world for nothing. You know what he’s done and you know what he’s capable of doing.”

Brandt Snedeker on his plans for the upcoming year: “If the PGA Tour has a tournament, I’m going to play the rest of the year pretty much. I’m playing the rest, and no concern at all. I’m being really smart about practice and taking time away. I didn’t touch a club since Sunday, two days off with the family, which was nice. Being real smart about how much I’m hitting balls and practicing, and should be fine.”

Woods on his inability to finish Sunday at the Open: “It’s an opportunity. I had it, I had a chance to win and didn’t get quite it done on Sunday. There were so many positives to the week, how well I hit it and how well I played.”

“Looking back on it, as I was saying on Sunday night with you guys, the only difference is I just didn’t get the feel of those greens the last few days, and I didn’t make the adjustments. That’s my fault for not making the adjustments. You’ve got to make the adjustments and I didn’t do it, and consequently I didn’t win the tournament.”

Of note:

Jack Nicklaus was named the 2013 Ambassador of Golf before the start of the tournament.

Sergio Garcia has a partnership with the First Tee where he will donate $1,000 for every birdie he registers on the PGA Tour and $2,000 for every eagle. All proceeds will go to whichever First Tee site is in the area of that week’s tournament. Garcia made the announcement prior to the tournament while visiting with participants from the First Tee chapters of Akron, Canton and Cleveland while hosting an informal Q&A session.

 Amey Fink contributed to this report

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