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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 August 2018

For Tiger Woods, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational will represent the climb - not the summit

Recent form suggests former world No 1 still some way from his best, and he should settle for more signs of progress at event he has dominated since 1999

Former world No 1 Tiger Woods rolled back the years to contend for the British Open title this year. Getty Images
Former world No 1 Tiger Woods rolled back the years to contend for the British Open title this year. Getty Images

The numbers are staggering, even for Tiger Woods.

Eight victories at Firestone Country Club, home to this week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Seven wins from 11 between 1999 and 2009, with a second and a fourth in among them.

Two three-peats. Three processions, triumphing by seven shots or more. An 11-stroke victory in 2000.

From 18 appearances at Firestone alone, Woods has banked almost US$11 million (Dh40.4m). He has made $207,800 per round. Per hole? $11,544. Per shot? $3,046.

He shares the course record, alongside Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal, a career-best 61 seized in 2000 - his eight-iron in the dark to the 72nd hole is often replayed for posterity - and then matched 13 years later. The South Course with Woods forever at the northern-most point on its leaderboard. No golfer has ever dominated one venue quite like that.

Which begs the question: can Woods do it there again this week?

Bridgestone provided the scene of his most recent professional victory, five years to the day when he tees up for his third round this Saturday. That sealed a 79th PGA Tour win. Half a decade later, he is still searching for the 80th.

Many are tipping Woods to finally reach that mark come Sunday. The portents have been promising. Last time out, at the British Open at Carnoustie, Woods led the field not long into his back nine on Sunday, before struggling down the stretch. Eventually, he finished tied-sixth. It followed a tied-fourth at the Quicken National Loans.

The close call at Carnoustie has raised expectations for a once-familiar forge around Firestone. Woods’ record there is one thing; the similarities with the Scottish links – position over power off the tee, plotting a way around the course, being creative – is another. Ever more so now, following four back operations and a fading of his light, Firestone feels Tiger-friendly.

However, Woods remains battle-weary. Well past his 42nd birthday, and with the injury and the ignominy that has blighted his twilight, he is far from the golfer who used to pummel Firestone into submission.

Granted, Carnoustie showed in glimpses the Woods of old, that his swing has synched once more, that supreme shot-making continues to be a wonderful weapon.

But Tiger 2.0 is a very different beast.

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Cracks appeared when in contention at the British Open; the three dropped shots in two holes; the final, mental hurdle insurmountable. Leading a tournament at 63 holes is significantly easier than standing at the summit after 72.

It is what used to separate Woods from the rest. Now it represents the last piece of the puzzle in his journey to professional redemption.

Consider that and Woods’ past success at Firestone begins to pale in significance. Undeniably, he has performed superbly this year to vault from 656th in the world rankings to 50th. He needed only 12 tournaments to do so. His result at the British Open squeezed him into Bridgestone and its limited-field, right on the number.

Woods had long since stated his mission to qualify for the tournament. This is the event’s final run at Firestone, much to its former master’s chagrin. There will be added incentive this week, to go with the heightened anticipation on the back of Carnoustie and the ever-more-trained eyeballs on a seemingly resurgent star.

Woods has not been back there since he withdrew with a back problem in 2014.

A ninth victory on a layout he once made his own would lift him to within two of Sam Snead’s record for PGA Tour wins. It would instantly push back Woods’ boundaries, open up the possibility that he might just recapture a modicum of the form that made him arguably the greatest player the game has seen.

Golf fans sense destiny calling, although it rarely plays out that way. Woods will not.

But with the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup and the FedEx Cup Play-offs to come, the north-trending American should settle simply for yet more signs of progress.

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