A strong European Tour representation will travel to Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, this week to contest the second of the season’s four World Golf Championships, the WGC – NEC Invitational.
As well as a host of established names, led by the current top three in the Volvo Order of Merit – Ernie Els, Thomas Björn and Padraig Harrington – the field also features a number of European Tour Members making their debuts in the event.
Falling into that category are 2003 European Tour winners Paul Casey, Robert-Jan Derksen, Ignacio Garrido, Philip Golding, Trevor Immelman, Fredrik Jacobson and Adam Scott, and they will be joined by Nick Faldo, Robert Karlsson, Stephen Leaney Jarrod Moseley, Hennie Otto and Steen Tinning.
From that group, Jacobson and Leaney have already shown this season that they are capable of competing at the highest level, Jacobson finishing tied fifth in the US Open Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club, Illinois, and tied sixth in the Open Golf Championship at Royal St George’s, while Leaney finished runner up to Jim Furyk in the US Open Championship.
One player looking forward to a return to Firestone is England’s Ian Poulter, who finished tied for 13th in the event in 2001, and who completed all four rounds at Oak Hill Country Club last week on only his second appearance in the US PGA Championship.
The 27 year old Englishman is flamboyant on the course thanks to his attacking style of play but also because of his colourful hair and attire, and the winner of the inaugural Nordic Open a fortnight ago will be looking to make as big an impression this week as his good friend and Tour room-mate Justin Rose did in the event 12 months ago.
Then, at Sahalee Country Club, Seattle, Washington State, debutant Rose, fresh from his tie for 23rd place in the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine National, produced an outstanding display, rounds of 67-67-72-68 giving him fifth place on 274, only six shots adrift of eventual champion Craig Parry.
Rose partnered Phil Mickelson in the final round and, despite the pressure of the occasion, outscored the experienced American by 68 to 71, leading the left-hander to comment: “Justin is a tremendous golfer. He doesn’t seem to have a weakness and I look forward to playing with him, and against him, for many years to come.”
Although Parry is the defending champion, the return of the championship to Firestone will feel like it is the return to the domain of World Number One Tiger Woods, who triumphed in three successive years when the event was staged there from 1999 to 2001.
Although having just failed to win a Major this season for the first time since 1998, Woods did win the first WGC event of the year, the WGC - Accenture Match Play at La Costa Resort & Spa in California at the beginning of March, and the return to a course where he has enjoyed such dominance in previous years will make him, once again, one of the strong pre-tournament favourites.
But the Ohio course has also a history of European Tour Members faring well, giving rise to the optimism that someone can claim the title come Sunday night.
In 2001, as Woods and Furyk battled out their marathon seven hole play-off, Darren Clarke took third while Colin Montgomerie was fourth. In 2000, Phillip Price produced one of his best ever individual performances to tie for second behind the World Number One, while in 1999 Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia finished in the top seven.
All five of those European Tour Members will again be in the line-up and hoping to get their hands on the unique and ornate terracotta trophy, in front a huge television audience which, this year, will stretch to over 140 countries worldwide.