The 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational returns to Akron this week with all eyes on Tiger Woods. But beyond Woods, Firestone consistently boasts one of the deepest fields in golf, with all the game's superstars flying in from all over the world. There are a number of young Americans looking for their first WGC win, and several veterans trying to round their game into form in time for the PGA Championship next week at Kiawah. This is one of the best events on Tour, with an incredible field on a course that the pros love. Here are some of the names to watch this week:
Tiger Woods - The world's most famous golfer has historically owned this course, but he's struggled on Firestone South the past two years in what were termed "low points" of his career. He finished in second-to-last place here in 2010, seemingly checking out in an early morning Sunday round of 77 one week before he would officially enlist the help of Sean Foley. Last year, he finished a pedestrian T37 and was not a factor on the weekend in his first tournament of the summer after injuring his knee and Achilles at Sawgrass. It was also the scene of significant caddie drama, as Woods had his childhood friend Bryon Bell on the bag in his first appearance without Stevie Williams.
Woods is in much better form this season, contending on the weekend at the U.S. Open and British Open, and capturing three Tour wins at other events and tracks he's historically dominated. With that form in mind, he has to be the heavy favorite (this year, there's merit to it) to win for the eighth time in 13 tries in Akron. It would be his second win in Ohio this summer and a staggering 17th victory at a WGC event.
Adam Scott - The Aussie will be making his first appearance since that historic collapse at Lytham two weeks ago. Scott enters as the defending champion at Firestone, but it was his caddie Stevie Williams who made all the headlines after his win last year. He fired a remarkable 62 on the South course to open his week last year. After the Open collapse, he'll be under the microscope again this Thursday as he tries to duplicate that low number.
Phil Mickelson - Phil started the season with a bang, blowing out Tiger with a dazzling final round at the at AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. But as the season turned from spring to summer, Mickelson lost momentum and enters this week after two disappointing showings at Olympic and Lytham. Next week's PGA Championship at Kiawah is another Pete Dye design that doesn't suit Phil's high-ball hitting ways. While Firestone is your classic American parklands course, expect Phil to work on shots more suitable for the oceanside links he'll be playing next week. If he employs that forward-looking approach for the greater good, it may lead to trouble this week. It would be a surprise if he contends, but with the limited field, he can certainly be in the mix on Sunday.
Rory McIlroy - Rory begins a 10-week stretch stateside that will culminate with the Ryder Cup in Chicago. The 2011 U.S. Open champion also enters the week looking for his form in advance of the season's final major. He seems to be rebounding from his June swoon but he's still not at his best. Rory has placed in the top ten the past two years at Firestone so the comfort-level is there. Ironically, the Northern Irishman prefers the classic American courses over the European style links he grew up on (and will play next week).
Bubba Watson - The 2012 Masters champ is another superstar who looked to be on the rebound from a poor summer. Bubba took a lengthy break after his win at Augusta to spend time with his wife and newly adopted son. His head certainly didn't seem into the game when he came back with appearances at the Memorial and Olympic, but he played well in Hartford and had a solid showing at the British. He's been in the top 25 at the Bridgestone in his past two appearances. This will be another measuring stick in an up-and-down summer.
Rickie Fowler - Bubba's buddy finally broke through with his first Tour win in Charlotte at the end of May. Fowler tied for second last year at Firestone and will look to continue his push for a Ryder Cup spot with a strong showing in Akron.
Dustin Johnson - The bomb-and-gouger has rebounded nicely from his injury which forced a WD at Augusta. Johnson won in Memphis and played well at Lytham, good enough for a top ten finish. With the South Course playing at 7400 yards, Johnson's length could provide a distinct advantage.
Luke Donald - The No. 1 player in the world will desperately try to hold on to the top spot with Tiger Woods likely to make a run at contention this week. Donald is still searching for his first major, and those questions will dog him again one week ahead of Kiawah. He was never really in contention at the British Open, but he did unexpectedly finish in the top five. He has one WGC career win (the 2011 Match Play) but finished T2 at Firestone last year. Driving has historically plagued Donald's career but he has perhaps the best short game in the world, something that continually comes in handy on the South Course.
These are just a handful of the superstars in action this week in Northeast Ohio. On a yearly basis, this event provides one of the best fields in golf and this year is no different. Almost every player in the field could be highlighted, and with no cut, every single golfer has a shot to contend. But expect Woods to be in the mix among those final groups on Sunday.