The PGA Tour chose the economics of corporate sponsorships over history when it decided to move the World Golf Championship held at Firestone Country Club to Memphis next year.
But what the tour didn’t realize — or realized and minimized as FedEx outbid Bridgestone — is this wasn’t just Akron history being shuffled to the side as it pacified the city and the historic course with a four-year contract for the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship.
It was trampling some of the greatest moments in tour history:
- Tiger Woods’ “Shot in the Dark” in 2000.
- Woods’ seven-hole playoff with Jim Furyk in 2001 that remains the highest-rated CBS telecast at Firestone.
- Woods’ approach at No. 9 in 2006 that bounced over the clubhouse and landed in the possession of a chef delivering crunchy cream pies.
- Jack Nicklaus’ 9-iron over a maple tree at No. 16, which he called his biggest gamble in a major, en route to victory in the 1975 PGA Championship.
- Jose Maria Olazabal’s 61 — he had a 59 in his sights with four holes to play — in the first round in the 1990 NEC World Series of Golf. Woods (second round, 2013), Sergio Garcia (second round, 2014) and 2017 champion Hideki Matsuyama (final round) later matched Olazabal’s course-record score on a layout that has ranked in the top 10 of the tour’s toughest venues three times in the past five years.
Not only that, but the tour abandoned the course where Woods has won eight times just when he seems poised to break a victory drought that dates back to the 2013 Bridgestone. Woods’ eight triumphs at Firestone equals the tour record he also set in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and shares with Sam Snead (Greater Greensboro Open). Woods is 42, but still drives the television ratings needle.
The history factor looms large to Jim Nantz, who has broadcast golf for CBS since 1986. In a conversation earlier this month in advance of him receiving the 2018 Ambassador of Golf award from Northern Ohio Golf Charities on Wednesday, Nantz said he didn’t believe 2018 will be the last PGA Tour event at Firestone.
“I don’t know that it’s going to be the last time,” Nantz said by phone from his home in Pebble Beach, Calif. “Forever is a very big word. There’s so much history at Firestone, it’s hard for me to imagine there won’t be something coming back there, circling back, in hopefully not the too distant future.
“It’s got a proven record of success. Things change. I think the odds are some day there will be a good reason to come back there.”
Those words from Nantz, the voice of golf for CBS, sounded as powerful as if Morgan Freeman was speaking as the voice of God in the comedy “Bruce Almighty.”
Nantz marvels on what he has seen at Firestone, like Woods hitting it over the clubhouse — “How did that happen?” — or “The Shot in the Dark,” which he said would rank with the most unusual moments he’s ever called.
“It was very strange to see it play out because it looked on television to be lighter than it was. They can open up the iris on a camera lens and it’s amazing how much different it can look than with your own eyes,” Nantz said. “Being there in person, it was inconceivable that someone could actually hit a golf ball and hit it on the green, find the green, much less land it within a foot of the cup. Of the great shots Tiger hit all time, that would have to be on that pretty special list.”
Nantz also recalled Woods’ playoff with Furyk and the discussion about a drop Woods received from the trees on the left when the scoreboard was in his way. But he wasn’t surprised that it remains the highest-rated Firestone broadcast.
“Tiger won a lot of the tournaments there in a runaway,” Nantz said. “People would still watch because it was Tiger. But that was a playoff that lasted seven holes, it was high-stakes drama.”
CBS would not release the actual ratings numbers, but following 2001 was 1988 (Mike Reid beat Tom Watson in a playoff), 1989 (David Frost beat Ben Crenshaw in a playoff), 2005 (Woods won by one shot over Chris DiMarco) and the aforementioned 2000 race-against-the-clock finish.
Firestone has hosted three PGA Championships (also 1960, won by Jay Hebert and 1966, won by Al Geiberger) and Woods has wondered why he never got to play in a major here. Nicklaus participated in his first professional event in the 1958 Rubber City Open and won at the South and North Course seven times, although four were 36-hole exhibitions.
Firestone is celebrating its 65th anniversary hosting professional golf events, and this year’s Bridgestone Invitational might be a going-away party unlike any other. Woods will return for the first time since 2014 and is back on his game, fresh off a tie for sixth at the British Open.
A Woods’ victory would seem fitting, not just because of the unforgettable moment it would produce, but because it might show the tour the error of its ways. That is likely a moot point, but it might take a deafening roar over another Tiger triumph in Akron to spur change that Nantz still believes possible.
Marla Ridenour is a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal.
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