AKRON, Ohio — The winner of the Bridgestone Invitational is already fairly obvious. Firestone Country Club’s South Course. That line has been used many times, usually for United States Open tracks that kick butt and take prisoners but that’s exactly what Firestone is doing.
There have been three pretty quiet weather days, none more balmy than Saturday, yet only nine players are under par through 54 holes, and nobody is lower than 5 under, where Jason Day and underappreciated Scott Piercy share the lead.
Five under? Isn’t that what Dustin Johnson shot to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont? Yeah. Before The Penalty That Almost Ruined The Open…but let it go.
The South still has bite. Which is surprising only because the winning score here has been in double digits below par the last eight years. Don’t forget that Tiger Woods won two of his eight titles here with scores of 6 under and 8 under. Somebody is going to have to go seriously low Sunday to reach -10 and the only man who’s shot lower than 4-under in any round is first-round leader William McGirt, who’s still lurking among the challengers.
Firestone South has been whispered about for years as a potential U.S. Open site. It’s good enough. It’s tough enough. It’s big enough — two other 18-hole courses on site would mean a limitless supply of corporate entertaining. It’s long enough this week to frustrate many of the world’s best.
And Firestone South does have a major resume. Three PGA Championships were played here in the 1960s and ’70s, resulting in wins by Jay Hebert, Al Geiberger and some Ohio kid named Jack Nicklaus. Not bad.
The South struck back unexpectedly Saturday at surprising times. Jordan Spieth piled up four birdies and moved to within two shots of the lead when he reached the par-5 16th hole known simply as The Monster. He laid up, then caught a sand wedge a hair thin (no pun intended, Mr. Spieth) and splashed it in the lake. He’s not sure what happened. Spieth dropped a few yards farther back for a replay wedge and watched a gust of wind — he says — nudge it over the green into a tangled lie. It was a triple bogey that left him back at even par, five off the lead, going into Sunday’s finale.
Justin Thomas was another victim of The Monster. He arrived at the 16th hole with a clean card — that is, no bogeys. He was two under and he, too, came up short in the water. Then he spun his next try back and saw it hit the cup and lip out and keep rolling. He missed the bogey try and made a double bogey. That helped him slide to 1 under par, tied for eighth, four shots back.
The 18th hole, a curling par 4 that the aforementioned Tiger once birdied in the dark for one of his more memorable wins, has been taking prisoners all week. Bogeys have outnumbered birdies by an almost three-to-one ratio. Spieth made one there Saturday. So did Charl Schwartzel, who had birdied five of his previous 10 holes.
So did Mr. U.S. Open runnerup, Piercy. He led the tournament by one but drove it in the left rough, then hit it into the rear of the back bunker. He didn’t have much of a shot to keep it on the green. What happened instead was that he didn’t get it to the green. He played a deft chip from snarly grass to five feet and holed that for bogey. If that doesn’t sound like U.S. Open byplay, what does?
“The Open is a different mindset because pars are so good there,” Piercy said. “Here, pars are still really good but there are a few more birdie opportunities. There’s a lot more importance at the Open on hitting fairways because the rough was so long. Here, it’s tough to drive it in these fairways but the rough is not as bad. You still have a shot if you miss to the correct side of the fairways for angles into the greens.”
So The South isn’t quite Oakmont West. Maybe he’s right because if it was, Day, your No. 1-ranked player in the world, probably might not have escaped with 69 on Saturday. After he birdied the opening hole, he started hitting it right, right, and right. He was playing for a right-to-left draw but his ball was starting right and leaking farther right. So he started aiming left to compensate and, as all golfers will understand, inevitably hit his familiar draw at just the wrong time.
“I felt like Mr. Haverkamp out of “Caddyshack” trying to find his golf ball and not knowing where the golf hole goes,” Day joked about the doddering character. “Anything under par with the positions I was in today was a positive.”
Day total of three fairways hit included the final two, one of which caromed off a tree in a favorable direction. “Three fairways?” he said. “That’s terrible.”
He also wasn’t done with his cinematic name-dropping. Asked about playing with Piercy last year in the BMW International, he said, “I can’t remember what I did yesterday. I’ve got the worst memory in the world. I’m like Dory in ‘Finding Dory.’ I remember playing with him but it was just so faint.”
You probably haven’t seen “Finding Dory’ unless you’ve got young children. Day has two so of course he’s seen it.
“The short game saved me but mentally, I was just trying to grind and grind and grind,” Day said. “Yeah, it wasn’t my best stuff but if I can hit it decent tomorrow and give myself more opportunities on the greens, I feel pretty confident with my putting that I can hole anything.” Day has won the last five times he’s held or shared the 54-hole lead. This field is remarkably bunched and the trio three shots behind him features U.S. Open winner Johnson, former Masters champ Charl Schwartzel and Memorial Tournament champ McGirt.
Everybody at even par or better is in play. Maybe even the guys at 1 over par, if they could somehow take it deep and find a miracle 63 or 64. It’s more likely that Day and Piercy, the steady Lingmerth and Johnson will be the pacesetters.
McGirt bounced back from Friday’s 74, which he said wasn’t that bad as it was mostly a product of switching wind directions, with a game 70. He won’t be in the final group with the long-hitting Day on Sunday but if had been, he had a game plan.
“On the first tee, I was going to take his driver and 3-wood and hand them to some fans and say, Now it’s a fair fight,” McGirt joked.
It probably won’t be a fair fight Sunday. It’s still Everybody Versus Firestone South, and you know who’s going to win that one.