Here we are on the verge of August and professional golf hasn’t shown the first sign of slowing down. Instead of an almost-late summer slide into the doldrums, the action on the PGA TOUR actually is heating up, and we’re coming off a weekend at the RBC Canadian Open that had more real-life drama than a month of reality shows.
First, Hunter Mahan shoots 64 on Friday to take the 36-hole lead, gets the “It’s time!” labor call from Dallas, withdraws from the tournament, jets home to share in the birth of daughter, Zoe, with his wife, Kandi, and puts it all in perspective with a message that says, “It’s hard to put into words how truly incredible this moment is.”
Almost, but not quite, the same could be said about the Saturday scramble to fill the void left by Papa Mahan. Dustin Johnson birdied seven holes and eagled the 18th for a 63. John Merrick, who had shot 62 on Friday and was in the final Saturday pairing with Mahan, had to play a onesome, bogeyed four holes on the front nine and rebounded with 4-under on the back, including an eagle at the last.
Brandt Snedeker, meanwhile, started popping in putts like the same guy who began the season with four Top 3s, including a win, and put together his own 63 on Saturday to get in range and added a 70 on Sunday to win by three strokes – aided by Johnson’s untimely triple bogey at the 71st hole – and join Tiger Woods (4) Phil Mickelson (3) and Matt Kuchar (2) as a 2013 multiple winner.
Phrases become clichés for a reason – they’re so true they get overused. So, what the heck, one more time: These guys are good. Seriously.
Mahan, appropriately, announced he’d be unable to re-join the TOUR this week as it moves to Akron, Ohio, for the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. He would have come in on a major upswing, with a tie for fourth at the U.S. Open, tie for ninth at The Open Championship and the two strong rounds in Canada topped off by a new baby girl over the weekend. As Brian Wacker pointed out on this site yesterday, don’t be surprised if Mahan makes the PGA Championship his first major next week at Oak Hill in Rochester.
In the meantime, there is plenty of intrigue to go around within the Bridgestone Invitational field of 74 that includes 49 of the world’s top 50 players – and at least that many storylines.
So don’t expect things to cool off at Akron this week. Rarely are this many top players in top form at this stage of the season. You can start with Mickelson, on the heels of the Scotland Slam – winning the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart and the The Open Championship at Muirfield in consecutive weeks. He will be bringing some of the best golf of his life with him to Firestone. Two runnerup finishes and two wins in his last five events. No reason to think he won’t remain interested for the rest of the season.
Tiger Woods? More on him later, but for now it helps to remember some history. In the decade from 1999-2009, the Bridgestone Invitational was as close to an annuity for Woods as any golf tournament in history – he won seven of the 10 events. More recently, those four tournaments he won earlier this year weren’t an accident.
Snedeker, a six-time winner who rose to elite status by winning THE TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and FedExCup at season’s end. He opened this year with a T-3 at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, a T-2 at the Farmers Insurance Open, a solo second at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the win the following week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. In the 12 events between his runner-up finish at the Barclays in August 2012 and his win at Pebble in February this year, he won $15.8 million, including a $10 million FedExCup bonus.
The injury to his left rib cage he developed during that torrid run sidelined him for a month after Pebble. He sat out the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship and World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, returned slowly at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, and finished tie for sixth at the Masters, tie for eighth at both THE PLAYERS Championship and the AT&T National and a tie for 11th at Muirfield. He took just 105 putts at the RBC Canadian Open, his best putting performance in any of his wins. Fully recovered?
“I feel like I’ve been fighting to get myself back to the way I was at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m there, but I’m close to the way I was playing in the beginning of the year.”
Kuchar, also rounding into the kind of form he showed in winning the Accenture Match Play Championship, his runner-up finish at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth and his win at the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, in June.
“I’m excited,” Kuchar said Sunday at Canada. “I feel like I’m in control of what I’m doing. I like the shape of the golf that I’m playing.”
England’s Lee Westwood also is on record as looking forward to the long and demanding (7,400-yard, par-70) Firestone Country Club, where he has a pair of top 10s (tie for ninth in 2010 and 2012) in his last four starts. Though he hasn’t won since relocating his family to South Florida at the start of the year to play full-time in the States, Westwood has played quite nicely in spots, with seven top 10s since March, including a tie for eighth at the Masters and tie for third at The Open Championship.
It would be serendipitous to see Westwood hoisting a Bridgestone Invitational trophy this year. A little-known stat on the former World No. 1 is that he has played in more World Golf Championships (43) than any player and has yet to win one. Wouldn’t be a bad way to go into the PGA Championship in search of his first major.
Woods has recaptured quite a bit of lost ground this season – his No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking and some of the old magic in his game. As he returns to the event he once dominated like no other, where in 2000 he hit the legendary seeing-eye, “shot-in-the-dark” 8-iron to gimme range at the 72nd hole to seal an 11-stroke victory, the question begs: what better week for him to take another giant stride forward? That would turn up the heat this week, next week and into September.