News & Opinion

Rubber meets road for PGA Tour in Akron

AKRON, Ohio – Tiger Woods has won eight times at Firestone Country Club. Can he make it nine this week when the Bridgestone Invitational returns? I don’t know about that, although his recent showing in the British Open at Carnoustie makes the possibility seem reasonable.

I know this: He’s never going to get a 10th PGA Tour victory at Firestone. This week is the end of the Bridgestone Invitational. The Tour will say farewell to Firestone.

The Bridgestone Invitational is not on the 2018-19 PGA Tour schedule. Its spot, along with its preferred World Golf Championship status, was bought by a higher bidder, FedEx, which will move the tournament to the package-delivery company’s home in Memphis, Tenn. Bridgestone, meanwhile, will host the Bridgestone Senior Players for the next four years, one of the Champions Tour’s five major championships.

It’s the end of an era. Or it’s the start of a new era. 

Akron doesn’t sound ready to settle for the latter. Sunday’s headline in the Akron Beacon Journal’s digital edition read, “PGA Tour tramples its own history with decision to abandon Firestone.”

When the move was made official in April, Beacon Journal columnist Bob Dyer described it this way: “Going from a World Golf Championship event to a PGA Senior Tour event is the equivalent of going from Major League Baseball to AA.” 

That’s harsh but not necessarily wrong. Firestone’s connection to pro golf dates to the 1954 Rubber City Open. (Akron is known as Rubber City, by the way – not the sexiest marketing angle but still better than, say, America’s Garlic Capital.) Tommy Bolt won that first one with a stunning score of 23 under par on the original South Course.

Then came the World Series of Golf in 1962. It was a battle royal between the year’s four major champions, but in ’62, Arnold Palmer won two of them, so it was a field of just three – The Big Three of Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. It was a big-deal tournament. That four-man format lasted until 1976, when it evolved into a bigger tour event. A field of 20 played in ’76, when Nicklaus won it. Along the way, Firestone hosted a few PGA Championships. Al Geiberger won one of them. Jay Hebert won one. That Nicklaus fella snagged one, too.

When Tiger Woods won the first of his eight Firestone titles in 1999, the field still was limited to 41 players. It felt more like an outing than a real tournament.

As a WGC event, the Bridgestone Invitational has grown to about 70 or so players from around the world (2018 field). “The WGC took the World Series of Golf to another level,” said Tom Strong, who was the tournament’s executive director then. “The WGC elevated the status, the fields and created a bigger purse. When you’re a WGC event, you were one of only four, with international players and broadcasts around the world. It’ll continue to grow and do great things in Memphis, too.”

You don’t have to wonder what the Firestone clubhouse walls would say if they could talk. You can read them.

“Walk past the golf shop and look at what’s on the wall there,” Strong said. “You see all the old clippings on the Rubber City Open, the Big Three, the PGA Championships. Firestone has stood the test of time.”

This is where I’m supposed to rage against the machine and fight against change and all of that trampled history. Pro golf always has been a nomadic existence. The players travel the country like gypsies – highly-paid, sponsored gypsies. And the tournaments themselves travel, too. 

The list of classic courses and tournaments that were long-time pillars of the PGA Tour schedule but no longer host events is a long one. My hall of fame of ex-tour sites includes Cypress Point, Doral, La Costa, Westchester, Butler National, Castle Pines, Warwick Hills, Thunderbird, Colonial (in Memphis, where Geiberger shot his 59), Indian Wells and Kingsmill, to name more than a few.

That’s a lot of history relegated to the dead-letter bin. But that’s business. Firestone has so much history in which to revel, even recent history. Woods made a lot of it. He had that near-par from when he played a shot over (yes, over) the clubhouse; that unforgettable shot in the dark at 18 (to win by, ho-hum, 11); playoff victories against Jim Furyk and Stewart Cink; a 61; a 62; and a one-shot win over Phil Mickelson.

Rory McIlroy won here. So did Mickelson. Every great player of the past 50 years has teed it up at Firestone.

I can’t say the PGA Tour is making a mistake by leaving Firestone. Money talks, and big money talks loudly. The PGA Tour would’ve made a mistake only if it had passed up the FedEx money. FedEx reportedly agreed to extend its FedEx Cup sponsorship through 2027 if Memphis got a WGC event – Akron’s WGC event. Bridgestone couldn’t realistically top that bid. FedEx puts about $50 million annually into the FedEx Cup. Multiply that times nine years and you get $450 million. Add the additional millions for the WGC and, yikes, FedEx is dropping a bundle on golf the likes of which never has been seen.

Tour players will lament leaving Firestone, but none of them will complain about the dollars continuing to rain down on them. 

It’s not what you want to hear, but real money tops real history. The old Yankee Stadium got replaced by a bigger, more lucrative version. No doubt some fans long for the nostalgic days of old, but I guarantee that Yankees management never has looked back.

Larry Napora has been Firestone’s director of golf course operations since 2008. I knew him before that when he was head superintendent at Treesdale Golf and Country Club in Gibsonia, Pa., where I was a member. This tournament transition won’t change his duties.

“We’re growing grass every day,” he said Monday afternoon. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a tournament or not.”

Next year, he’ll just be growing grass for a different crew of golfers.

“I’m at the age where next year when golfers walk down the fairways, I won’t have to read their names on their golf bags,” Napora said with a laugh. “I’ll recognize them. They’re the guys I grew up with. It’s still a big event. Our crew will be excited to host it.”

As for the Bridgestone Invitational’s farewell, the Beacon Journal reached CBS announcer Jim Nantz by phone, and he told the paper, “There’s so much history at Firestone, it’s hard for me to imagine there won’t be something coming back there. Forever is a very big word. Things change.”

Not everything changes. Monday morning, Napora was out on the South Course checking on the speed of the greens. He bumped into Tour player Bubba Watson, an early arrival playing a practice round.

“The course is perfect,” Napora said Watson told him.

That one word is the essence of Firestone’s legacy. I think it’s enough.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle