Magnificent McIlroy ready to light up Firestone
Xander Schauffele can contend again
Sky Sports from 2pm Thursday
Open champion Francesco Molinari returns to action in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone and Italy's first Major winner may struggle to get his juices flowing after touring with the Claret Jug since his Carnoustie heroics. His humdrum Firestone form of 39-15-40-44-24 seems likely to be improved upon, but others are preferred.
Tiger Woods is an eight-time Firestone champion who has been well backed in the wake of him contending for the Carnoustie crown, but his last success was five years ago. He has won only one of the last eight editions and the modern Tiger is better suited to shorter, firmer courses where he does not need to use his driver too often.
Dustin Johnson is clear favourite after cruising to Canadian Open glory on Sunday, but he has never won in back-to-back weeks. Winning in Canada meant a lot to him and there must be a chance of a dip in focus at Firestone, with the final Major of the season looming large.
Palmer's top tip
Rory McIlroy 12-1
The 2014 Bridgestone Invitational was treated to a masterclass from Rory McIlroy, who finished 15 under par to win by two shots, and the former world number one can go close to repeating the dose in ideal conditions this week.
McIlroy will be licking his lips at a Firestone course which has been softened in the build-up by rain and the swashbuckling powerhouse can bolster an already excellent record at a venue which plays into the hands of the best drivers. He has posted five top-ten finishes in seven Firestone starts and arrives this year in superb tee-to-green form.
McIlroy insisted on attacking Carnoustie last time out in the Open, feeling like he was too defensive in the previous two Majors, and his brave, gung-ho tactics nearly earned the ultimate reward. He almost pulled off a remarkable victory due to the quality of his ball-striking, sharing second place despite suffering more than most on the greens.
McIlroy threatened the Claret Jug from the worst side of the draw – he battled manfully through difficult weather in the opening two rounds – and his Open performance bodes extremely well for the his hopes of glory over the next fortnight.
There was a calmness and a contendedness about McIlroy after the Open, which probably stemmed from the fact he knew imminent silverware was likely Stateside if he could find a slight improvement with his putter. He can play a wet Firestone on auto-pilot – his rookie caddie is not the handicap it often is – and Rory could destroy this layout with perfect weather expected for the competition days.
Xander Schauffele 40-1
Alongside McIlroy in second place at the Open was Xander Schauffele, who has quickly established himself as one of the best players in the world due to a rock-solid long game which has seen him thrive on difficult courses.
Schauffele, fifth and sixth in the last two US Opens, won the Tour Championship last year on a tough par-70, and his runner-up finish in the Players Championship at Sawgrass in May provides further evidence of his threat on challenging layouts.
Schauffele's maiden US Tour title came in the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia, across the Ohio border, and he finished 13th on his Firestone debut 12 months ago, improving as the week wore on, getting to grips with a course which is perfect for him.
Marc Leishman 66-1
Two of the three US Tour triumphs of Marc Leishman have come in the north-east of America and the Virginia-based pro seems to raise his game close to home. He made a strong Presidents Cup debut in Ohio, beating Matt Kuchar in the singles, and has played well in Ohio in the Memorial the last three years. At Firestone, he finished third in the 2014 Bridgestone.
Leishman, like McIlroy, was on the wrong side of the Open draw and was disappointed with 60th place, but he won two high-class events last year – Bay Hill and the BMW – and should run well at a juicy price this week.
Others to note
The Englishman failed to take advantage of perfect tee-times over the first two rounds at Carnoustie, but tied for second place after a strong finish. Firestone is a fantastic fit for him, but he has been on a jolly since the Open – messing about with Henrik Stenson in Sweden before a birthday knees-up in London – so may not be at full throttle.
The Spaniard made a bright start at Carnoustie, before missing the cut after a humbling second-round 78. He tied for 28th on his Firestone debut last year. The youngster loves hitting his driver and must be respected.
The former world number one amateur was fourth in the Memorial in Ohio in June and 12th in the Open last time out. He c ould take an immediate shine to Firestone on his debut.
The greens-in-regulation machine has an ideal game for Firestone and a great record in the Memorial. His record in elite events is pitiful, though, appearing to freeze in Major or WGC company.
The Southport lad should see Firestone as a decent opportunity, given it plays to his strengths and 28th was a solid debut last year, but teeing up in Canada last week was an unhelpful energy drain.
The world number three missed the Open cut on the mark after a second-round 77. Likely to improve on underwhelming Firestone form of 33-28.
4pts each-way 12-1 Sky Bet
2pts each-way 40-1 BetBright, Betfred, Boyles
1pt each-way 66-1 Betfred, BoyleSports
Course Firestone South, Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio
Prize money $10m ($1.66m to the winner)
Length 7,400 yards Par 70 Field 73
Course records – 72 holes 259 Tiger Woods (2000) 18 holes 61 Jose Maria Olazabal (1990), Tiger Woods (2000, 2013), Sergio Garcia (2014), Hideki Matsuyama (2017)
Course winners taking part Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Tiger Woods (eight times), Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama
When to bet By 12.30pm Thursday
Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 2pm Thursday
Time difference Ohio is five hours behind the UK and Ireland
Last week – Canadian Open 1 D Johnson (7-1), T2 W Kim (175-1), B H An (60-1), 4 K Bradley (70-1), 5 A Ancer (160-1), T6 T Fleetwood (16-1), D Lee (125-1)
Course overview Opened in 1929 and redesigned by Robert Trent Jones ten years later, the South has hosted all but two of the World Series of Golf tournaments, which became World Golf Championship events in 1999, first as the NEC Invitational and then, from 2006, the Bridgestone Invitational.
The 2002 renewal was at Sahalee Country Club in Washington. The South is an immensely long par 70, with seven of the ten par-fours measuring more than 450 yards apiece.
The 526-yard par-five second is the most obvious birdie chance on the layout. The fifth, seventh and 15th are all testing par-threes of more than 200 yards. The greens are smallish and Bentgrass.
The story of last year Hideki Matsuyama produced a Firestone masterclass, firing a final-round 61 on his way to a five-shot success
Weather forecast There has been some rain in the build-up to soften the track, but sunny, calm conditions are expected for the competition days.
Type of player suited to challenge Length off the tee is an advantage on a series of gruelling par-fours, as underlined by Firestone champions like Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama. This is an all-round test but one where powerhouses are favoured.
Key attribute Power
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