Commentary

Tiger seeking seventh win at Firestone

Originally Published: August 8, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AKRON, Ohio -- In a career full of them, another milestone awaits Tiger Woods next week at Hazeltine National Golf Club: It will be his 50th major championship as a professional.

And if there is one thing we've come to know about Woods, he holds those tournaments in the highest regard, and meticulously prepares for them, having won 14 -- which means a 28 winning percentage even if he fails to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy in Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Stuart Franklin/Getty ImagesIf Tiger Woods can pull it out Sunday, it would be his 70th career PGA Tour win, placing him just three behind Jack Nicklaus for second place all time. Sam Snead owns the record with 82 career victories.

That is why this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational is a rare occasion for Woods. It is just the sixth time he has played the week prior to a major, all of them the PGA Championship. (And this year is the first time he has played two weeks leading into a major.)

Given that this is a World Golf Championship event and it has been moved to the week prior to the PGA starting in 2007, it is unlikely that Woods would skip it -- especially when you consider he's won the tournament six times and is now in position to win the Bridgestone for a seventh after a 5-under-par 65 put him in Sunday's final pairing with tournament leader Padraig Harrington.

Still, if he has to play the week prior to a major, Woods could not have asked for a better venue to prepare than Firestone Country Club.

"Absolutely, this golf course helps," Woods said. "This golf course is straightforward, no surprises, right in front of you. It's hard. ... This golf course has stood the test of time. They've added a little bit of length over the years, but not much. Still, year in and year out, this is one of the hardest golf courses we play."

Woods will be seeking his 70th career PGA Tour title Sunday -- and 16th World Golf Championship victory -- at a venue where he has never finished out of the top five, meaning he will likely put his thoughts of capturing a 15th major title next week at the PGA on hold.

To do it this week in Ohio, he'll have to overtake Harrington, the three-time major champion who has not sniffed a tournament title since the PGA Championship a year ago at Oakland Hills. Harrington and Woods last played together in the final group on the final day at the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, where they both shot 67 before Harrington won on the second hole of a playoff.

This is much different, however. Woods has six victories in 10 previous appearances at Firestone and has but six rounds over par dating to 1997. Harrington, meanwhile, has missed 10 cuts since his victory at the PGA while working through swing changes.

Harrington was so immersed in his work Saturday -- a 67 that pushed him to 10 under par, 3 strokes ahead of Woods -- that he had no idea Tiger shot 65 to push his way into the final pairing.

"Now I really wish that putt went in on 18," Harrington joked. "At the end of the day, there's probably never enough room between you and Tiger, so I know I'm going to have to play well if I'm going to win."

And they might as well get used to each other. Harrington and Woods are scheduled to play together during the first two rounds of the PGA along with Rich Beem next week at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn.

That is where Woods posted his first runner-up finish in a major when he came up a shot short against Beem at the 2002 PGA Championship. The course will be hosting its fourth men's major championship. At 7,685 yards, it will be the longest major venue in history.

Firestone measures 7,400 yards, plays as a par-70 and has been a part of the PGA Tour in some form dating to the early 1960s. And it has been the site of three PGA Championships (1960, Jay Hebert; 1966, Al Geiberger; 1975, Jack Nicklaus).

"It's a great test because the grass length is the same, the rough is very similar, green surfaces are very similar, same speed, same grass," Phil Mickelson said. "It couldn't be a better venue for Hazeltine. ... You could hold the PGA here and it would be a great site, and they have."

"This is the prime course you would want to play before any major because it tests your patience," said British Open champion Stewart Cink, who is tied for fourth, 6 strokes back. "There's some rough out there. The greens are tricky. There's a lot of difficult shots into the greens. It's long. It's got everything a major championship course has, so it's the perfect warm-up course."

For Woods, playing the week prior to a major is not his preference.

Chirp Chirp

Tiger Woods did not give himself many birdie looks in Round 3 by hitting just 10 greens in regulation, but he took better advantage of the opportunities than he did in the first two rounds.

Birdie or Better Conversion
Conv./Chances Field rank
Round 3 5/10 T-6
Round 2 2/13 T-55
Round 1 3/13 T-36
-- ESPN Stats and Information

"I've always found that tournaments aren't exactly the best play to find your game," Woods said. "Go home, work on it for hours. You have plenty of daylight during the summer to work at it. But if you're playing well, it's nice to get the momentum going into a major championship."

That differs from Harrington, who prefers to play two tournaments leading into a major championship, better to get into a competitive mindset. Both will be in that realm Sunday.

Woods has six victories here, but never from more than 2 behind heading into the final round. Of his 66 stroke-play victories on the PGA Tour, 20 have been from behind including two this year: he came from 5 back at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and 4 back at the Memorial.

Harrington, meanwhile, has been long removed from his last shot at victory -- and has Woods to deal with on top of it.

"I realize I'm going to have a difficult day, that's for sure," Harrington said. "You know, this golf course has obviously been very good for Tiger. He's played well on it in the past and done well, so I don't think anything is going to be easy. Probably at best it's going to be a long, hard day and a battle. That's what I'm going to prepare myself for."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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