A year ago Tiger Woods was outside the top 1,000 in the World Golf Rankings. Now he is up to 50th and back at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a tournament he has won eight times.
From the moment he swung it was obvious Tiger Woods was in pain. On the ninth tee in the final round of the 2014 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, already three-over thru eight holes, Woods winced as he hit his drive and immediately grabbed for his back. He slowly walked down the fairway, waiting for a golf cart that would take him away.
That is the last memory Woods has of Firestone Country Club. Now four years removed from having to withdraw, he returns to Akron this week to complete a remarkable journey.
The fact that Woods is even in the field this week is incredible. A year ago he was 1,046th in the World Golf Rankings. At the start of 2018 he was 649th. A series of back injuries had made Woods question whether he would even play on the PGA Tour again.
Not only is he back, he is playing like his old self. A runner-up finish at the Valspar Championship was the first sign of his recovery. He finished fourth at his own event, the Quicken Loans National, last month.
Then, at the Open Championship two weeks ago, he held the lead on the front-nine in the final round. A costly double bogey at the 11th hole, however, dropped him to a sixth place finish. But it was suddenly clear that the Woods who limped off the course at Firestone four years ago was gone, and in its place was the Woods who has won this tournament eight times.
“I went from just hoping to be able to play the tour, to, now that I feel like I can play the tour, I certainly can win again,” Woods said at his press conference on Wednesday.
With that sixth place finish at Carnoustie, Woods crept up to 50th in the world, ensuring he would be back at the Bridgestone Invitational. He last won here in 2013, but hasn’t played since that withdrawal in 2014. He admits getting a chance to come back here was motivation for him to not only find his way back on tour, but to play well.
“That was certainly a goal of mine. I was just hoping, one to play the tour long enough to be able to get an opportunity, but I also had to play well to do it,” he says.
“I was pretty far in the world there, starting last December I was about 1,200 in the world. And now within a year to get down to 50 is, I think, a pretty big accomplishment.”
Woods’ record at Firestone would be a decent career in its own right. His eight titles here are tied for most wins at one PGA event. He has also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational eight times, while Sam Snead won the same number of times in Greensboro.
Justin Thomas, World No. 3, says Woods has to be considered a favorite this week because of his comfort level at Firestone.
“You know he’s going to play well this week,” Thomas said on Wednesday. “This place is like Augusta for him. He can probably take two or three weeks off and he’s going to get around here fine because he knows how to.”
“He’s won here as many times as I’ve won everywhere in my career. Surprised he hasn’t mentioned that yet.”
One other factor that motivated Woods to earn his way back: this is the last year of the Bridgestone Invitational. Next season it is being replaced by the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Woods says it will be sad to see the tournament go because of what it has meant to him over the years.
“I’ve always been a fan of this golf course,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it is leaving. I know it has to move, it has to go forward on to Memphis. That’s one of the reasons I tried so hard to get into this event, is because it does mean something special to me.”
A year ago Woods was far removed from the Bridgestone Invitational. Not only did he get back, he is in it to win it.