There are few tournaments that better personify Tiger Woods' dominance over the years than the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where the 14-time major champion has won seven times in 12 appearances. His mastery of Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, is rivaled only by his seven pro wins at Torrey Pines.
"Certain golf courses you just feel comfortable," Tiger said after last winning at Firestone in 2009. "You see the tee shots, you see the approach shots, and the greens seem to be easier to read than others. This golf course is one of those for me."
That 2009 win in Akron came during a year when Woods had six victories, including top-10s in three of the four majors. It was his most wins in a season without taking a major. He would earn his 10th PGA Tour Player of the Year award, but losing the PGA Championship at Hazeltine to the unheralded Y.E. Yang left a bitter taste in his mouth.
With a tour-leading three wins in 2012, Woods is headed toward his record 11th Player of the Year honor. Another victory at Firestone could cement that amazing feat. By the end of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the 36-year-old, 74-time PGA Tour winner could be just a handful of victories away from tying Sam Snead's record of 82 wins.
Yet like 2009, Tiger could have a huge year without winning a major. And when you're Tiger, no matter how many times you stand on the victory podium, it's the majors that measure the worth of a season. With his limited tournament schedule, every regular event is invariably a warm-up for a major. All the top tier players probably share Woods' emphasis on the majors, but they aren't also carrying the pressure to break Jack Nicklaus' record.
After not contending on the weekend at the Masters and the U.S. Open, Tiger finally got himself into position in a final round at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. But on Sunday he ruined his chances with a disastrous triple-bogey at the sixth hole.
Woods has one more opportunity to get a major this season at next week's PGA Championship on Kiawah Island, S.C. His comfort level at Firestone should put him in a good frame of mind going into that tournament. Since 2007, the Firestone event has come on the schedule the week before the PGA. In '07, Tiger won the WGC-Bridgestone, then he went on to take his fourth PGA at Southern Hills.
His last win in a major came at the '08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, but he's taken the drought in stride, often giving the pat answer that he will win the more he puts himself into contention. And the great depth in the game has made it harder than ever to win one of the big four.
In 2000, Woods won at Firestone by 11 shots and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15. Of course that was the year he started his Tiger Slam, when after finishing fifth in the Masters he reeled off wins at the next four majors.
Firestone is a keen reminder of those times. And that must be a good feeling for Tiger as he makes his way back to the top of the game. He can build on those wonderful memories as he also tries to rejuvenate his fortunes in the majors.
His showing at Firestone in 2011 was reminiscent of the kind of mediocrity that had crept into his game over the past few years. His 1-over total was 18 shots off Adam Scott's winning score. But in fairness that was his first tournament appearance in three months after a leg injury forced him to withdraw from The Players Championship. He then missed the cut miserably in Atlanta at the PGA.
At the 2010 Bridgestone, Woods struggled with his swing and ended up in a tie for 78th, with only one player in the field finishing worse.
Now the No. 2 player in the world, Tiger is healthy and his game is reenergized with the efficiencies of his new Sean Foley-designed swing. Woods didn't win at Lytham but it's hard to call a tie for third -- his 36th top-10 in a major -- a failure.
Everything is lined up for him to have a good week in Akron. It's no coincidence that two of his three wins this season have come at events where he's won multiple times. Bay Hill and Muirfield Village are places where Tiger has shined over the years. But he couldn't carry the momentum of those wins into the majors.
After Bridgestone, Tiger faces a daunting schedule. He will play the PGA, then have a week off before starting the FedEx Cup playoffs at the Barclays at Bethpage Black. After playing at least three weeks of the playoffs, he will make his way to Medinah for the Ryder Cup at the end of September.
Woods didn't qualify for the playoffs or win an official tournament last year. So no matter what happens in Akron and Kiawah Island, he's made great strides from a very low point in his career.
But a win in a major is the only thing that can certify a true comeback for him. Kiawah will be at the forefront of his mind this week in Akron, but he's got enough work to do around Firestone to keep his attention for a few days.