This is a somewhat sad week for golf in Northeast Ohio as this weekend’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational will be the last regularly scheduled PGA Tour event at Firestone County Club’s famous South Course.
For 40-plus years, the Akron event has been a special stop for the PGA Tour.
I first remember it as the NEC World Series of Golf, a special invitational that annually hosted a select field of the world’s best players for one of the year’s biggest purses.
For a while, winning the event included not only one of the year’s biggest purses, but also a 10-year exemption for the Tour. For comparison purposes, today’s majors each carry a five-year exemption.
I did a little reading on the event and was shocked to learn just how big the purse was in comparison to other Tour events. In 1976, Jack Nicklaus won $100,000 for winning the World Series of Golf. The top-paying major that year was the PGA Championship — Dave Stockton won his second PGA Championship and collected $45,000 for his victory.
So with a history as rich as The World Series/WGC and a course as famous at Firestone South, how could this possibly be the last year the Tour makes a regular visit to Akron?
My personal opinion is twofold. First, there’s the politics that comes with FedEx signing a new 10-year title sponsorship with the Tour in 2017. Final figures weren’t released, but the total FedEx Cup purse in 2017 was $35 million.
And that’s expected to increase “significantly” over the next 10 years.
If FedEx can support the tour with $300 million plus over the next 10 years, they probably carry some weight when it comes to scheduling.
So it should come as no surprise that next years WGC event will be held in none other than FedEx’s hometown of Memphis.
But if that’s reason one, my opinion is that the course itself is reason number two. Yes Firestone South is one of the country’s most famous courses. But unfortunately, I think it’s just quite simply too easy for today’s top players.
I’ve been lucky to play the South course at Firestone a handful of times. I’ve always found it to be a punishing course.
A back and forth beat down of 470-yard par 4 after 470-yard par 4.
The second hole is a legit birdie opportunity if you can find the fairway.
The third hole is a lay up/position shot off the tee, but can then be birdied with a wedge from there. After that, it’s basically a “hang on” game for 15 holes.
The fairways have slopes that seem to throw balls into the rough. Greens sit up, and when firm, are difficult to hold or keep in the right position. Par threes are all long.
Rough in punishing.
And the greens can get lightning quick. When I play there, I feel like one slight mis-hit of any shot leads to an easy bogey. But that must be for us mortals.
It’s Thursday at 10:30 p.m. as I type this. The first round of this week’s event is in the books. And the scores are ridiculously low. Ian Poulter led with 62. Rickie Fowler and Kyle Stanley had 63s. A quick check of the top of the leaderboard and I immediately found four bogey-free rounds; Poulter, Fowler, Rory McIllroy and Jason Day.
I just can’t fathom playing the South without at least one bogey.
Let alone with Tour standard pins hugging the edges of every green.
And yet, there they are. Today’s top players making the 7,400 yard South course obsolete. They carry the ball so far.
And so high.
And can work the ball both directions so easily.
All that, paired with the rain from earlier this week, and the South is all of a sudden target practice for the world’s best players.
And it’s not just this year.
From 1976 through 1998, 23 events were played on the South. Eight were won with scores of 10-under or better. Only three were won by someone shooting 13-under or better.
Tiger started his run at Firestone with a win in 1999. There have been 18 tournaments from then through last year. Fifteen were won with double-digit under par scores. Six were 15-under or better. And Tiger set the record in 2000 with a 21-under-par total of 259.
So if a course like Firestone South can be made into target practice with a little bit of rain, what’s the answer?
Other than rolling back the golf ball, there probably isn’t one for the regular Tour.
Perhaps the best answer for the South is what the future already holds, as 2019 will be the first year for a new Champions Tour stop. I for one will enjoy watching players hit mid to long irons into the South’s greens again.
But there is a sadness to the end of the Tour era as well. For 40+ years the world’s best players have annually convened in Akron. I’ve heard great stories of players drinking wine at Akron’s famous Diamond Grille (be sure to take cash if you go).
And stories of players staying up too late in the famed player’s lounge inside the Firestone clubhouse.
For me, I’ll always remember Larry Gilbert. A little known PGA Head Professional from Kentucky, I was lucky enough to win the NEC World Series of Golf Pro-Am with Larry Gilbert as our team’s professional in 1992. I was 11. With the 20 shots I was given as handicap, I remember getting two shots on the difficult 13th.
I told my Dad, who also played on our winning team, that, with my two shots, a natural par on 13 would result in a best ball eagle for our team. He told me if I parred 13 he’d kiss my rear end on the 18th green in front of the assembled crowd that day. I’ll never forget Larry Gilbert’s southern drawl when my chip for par went in: “Pucker up Davey.”
Yes, Firestone has held a special place in my golfing heart for a long time now. I hope to watch something special unfold (read: Tiger win his 9th Bridgestone at the course he’s dominated). But more than anything, I hope to see the old South course put up a good fight on it’s last go around. It deserves to show its teeth one last time.
Jonah Karzmer is a former golf professional who writes a Sunday golf column for The Vindicator. In his spare time he sells commercial insurance and loves getting feedback on his weekly columns via email at Jonah@thekarzmerinsurance.com.