Sixteen European Tour Members will compete in the second World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio, this week when No.1 Tiger Woods aims to retain the title he won by a stroke from Phil Mickelson last year.
Woods, holder of the US Open, Open and US PGA titles, is joined in a field of outstanding quality by the man who finished runner-up in three majors in 2000, Ernie Els.
The final places in the field were decided on Monday when Ken Venturi and Peter Thomson, respective captains of the United States and International Presidents Cup teams, named Paul Azinger, Loren Roberts, Robert Allenby and Steve Elkington as their wild cards for that match later this year. Those four automatically receive entries into the WGC-NEC Invitational.
Europe’s top twelve on the Volvo Order of Merit after the Victor Chandler British Masters qualified for the event, in which Sergio Garcia was the leading European last time around. Garcia has not qualified on this occasion, but Europe is superbly represented by Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Colin Montgomerie, Thomas Björn, Miguel Angel Jiménez, Padraig Harrington, Phillip Price, José Maria Olazábal, Gary Orr, Paul McGinley and Ian Woosnam.
Harrington finished highest of that impressive contingent last year, claiming a share of 12th place exactly one week after successfully qualifying for the 1999 Ryder Cup team and dashing to catch a hastily-arranged flight from Munich to Cleveland.
Olazábal has fond memories of the fiendishly difficult South Course at Firestone, which he reduced to 61 blows, nine under par and a course record, in winning the 1990 NEC World Series of Golf by a remarkable 12 strokes.
Björn and Jiménez will relish another opportunity to get closer to Woods. The former finished joint second alongside Els in the Open last month while the latter – again with Els – got closest to the World’s best golfer in the US Open at Pebble Beach in June.
Masters champion Vijay Singh, World Number Two David Duval and Steve Elkington were all forced to retire from the event due to injury.
Woods, though, came within a shot of emulating that feat last year with a third round 62 which set up the victory began a streak of six consecutive victories in US PGA Tour events which stretched into the 2000 season.
That streak matched Ben Hogan’s in 1948 for the second longest in US PGA Tour history. The record for consecutive victories is 11 by Byron Nelson in 1945.
With his 8-stroke victory in the Open at St.Andrews, Woods collected his 21st US Tour title since turning professional in September 1996. A pair of those titles came in World Golf Championships events. He won the 1999 World Golf Championships—NEC Invitational and followed that with a victory in the World Golf Championships—American Express Championship. He has won six times so far in 2000.
Noted for its length, the par 70, 7,189-yard South Course includes a series of intimidating, long par four holes and one of the longest par fives anywhere. The 16th hole plays to 625 yards. A pond in front of the green captures its share of errant shots. Usually, the casualties aren't the result of futile attempts to reach the green in two. They are third shots from players who hit errant tee shots and find the woods. A well-placed long tee shot does not preclude the opportunity to get home in two.
Players, however, have a birdie opportunity on the only other par five, the 497-yard second hole. The 18th hole, though, is all the par four anyone would ever want to play. At 464 yards, it is long, narrow and has a green defended by bunkers. It's not a place to expect to make a birdie to win.
The 16th hole doesn't have the market covered on length. Before you even get there, the par three, 221-yard 15th provides enough of a challenge. The flat green makes for a straight putt but getting the ball close to the hole can be a problem. From the tee, bunkers on the left of the green are hidden and provide for unpleasant surprises.
If a 221-yard par three isn't enough, try the 234-yard fifth hole. The small green can be reached with a five or six iron but a three iron might be required when the wind is blowing. Strange as it may seem, it is not one of the toughest scoring holes.
That honour goes to two of the par fours. The sixth is 469 yards and has ranked as the second and most tough challenge for professionals at Firestone over the years. When Robert Trent Jones redesigned Firestone into "The Monster" in 1959, this hole made par an excellent score.