By Dave Shedloski
Perhaps no golf facility in the world has been more utilitarian to the professional ranks than Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Site of this week’s World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, Firestone, which has 54 holes of championship-caliber golf, has hosted a tournament annually since 1954, when the Rubber City Open first was contested on the famed — but not yet fearsome — South Course.
The list of events held at Firestone is impressive, starting with three PGA Championships in 1960, ’66 and ’75, the latter won by Ohio native son Jack Nicklaus, whose ties to Firestone exceed all but a handful of venues. Nicklaus made his PGA TOUR debut in the 1958 Rubber City Open, eventually tying for 13th as an amateur, and he went on to win seven times on the South Course overall. His design company also had a role in a renovation of the South Course in the mid-1980s.
The American Golf Classic, the CBS Golf Classic and the World Series of Golf preceded the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, which began in 1999. In 2002, when the WGC event moved to Sahalee Country Club in Seattle, Firestone’s South Course welcomed the Senior PGA Championship, won by Fuzzy Zoeller. Firestone’s North Course twice hosted a TOUR event, the 1976 American Golf Classic and the 1994 NEC World Series of Golf. Firestone holds the distinction of being the only facility in the world to have three televised golf events in one calendar year, when it hosted the American Golf Club, CBS Golf Classic and World Series of Golf in 1976.
This week’s Bridgestone will be Firestone’s last, as the PGA TOUR will move the tournament to Memphis, Tennessee next season.
In 1915, tire and rubber magnate Harvey Firestone purchased 1,000 acres of farmland south of his Firestone Tire and Rubber Company factory as part of a plan to provide his employees and their families houses, schools, churches and a park. In 1929, Firestone’s South Course was opened. Bert Way, an English golf professional who finished second in the 1899 U.S. Open, designed the layout, known for its taxing routing in which 16 holes run north and south. Only the fifth and sixth holes play east-west.
But the true identity of the South Course, as a more arduous, broad-shouldered test of golf, was born in 1959, when famed architect Robert Trent Jones redesigned it for the 1960 PGA Championship. He held nothing back, building seven new tees and adding more than 50 bunkers and other features intended to befuddle the PGA field. Of course, he also lengthened it from 6,620 yards to an intimidating 7,165 yards. Sure enough, no one broke par, as Jay Hebert won with a score of 1-over 281.
The par-5 16th hole was the most controversial change. Jones added 50 yards to the dogleg-left hole, making it 625 yards, and for added fun he installed a pond in front of the green, which discouraged even the longest hitters from going for the putting surface in two. When he triple-bogeyed the 16th hole to essentially knock himself out of contention in the 1960 PGA, Arnold Palmer, then the reigning U.S. Open and Masters champion, said of the hole, “As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s ridiculous.”
He later called it a Monster. And the name stuck.
Today the hole is listed as 667 yards after it was lengthened again in 2003, making it the longest on the PGA TOUR at a regular tournament site. But there’s more to the story — or less, depending on how you want to do the math. When course superintendent, Brian Mabie, measured the hole with a laser from the rear of the runway tee box, his reading was 666. He called Don Padgett II, then the head professional.
“I told Brian let’s make it 667. We can’t have it be the ‘Devil Monster,’ Padgett recalled recently. “I mean, who was going to fuss over one more yard?”
That one more yard makes Firestone South 7,400 yards, par 70. With its strategic bunkering, tree-lined fairways and complementary thick rough, the South Course isn’t unconquerable, but it is relentlessly challenging.
“As a test, I always thought Firestone was strong. Trent Jones did a great job with it,” Nicklaus said. “It only has two par 5s, one very reachable and very playable early in the round, and of course 16 was the monster hole. The par 4s are strong. You hit a shot in the rough and it’s even more difficult. I think it’s a really, really good test of golf. I think that the only thing that happened through the years is as the golf ball has gone longer, it makes all golf courses play a little bit shorter. Probably doesn’t have quite the teeth that it had in its early years.”
Like any course, Firestone South has given up its share of low scores when the conditions are right. Jose Maria Olazabal fired a 9-under 61 there in the 1990 NEC World Series of Golf, which he won by 12 strokes, and Tiger Woods equaled the mark in his final PGA TOUR win in the 2013 edition of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Sergio Garcia also had a 61 in 2014, but finished second to Rory McIlroy. Hideki Matsuyama tied the course record again last year during his win.
The only player who has enjoyed Firestone more than Nicklaus is Woods, who has won on the South Course a record eight times. (Sam Snead won eight times at the Greater Greensboro Open — now the Wyndham Championship — and Woods also has eight wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.)
It fit his eye and his game perfectly.
“I love the fact that these fairways are framed,” said Woods, who holds the 72-hole record of 259, set in his remarkable 2000 season. “We play so many courses with mounds and blind shots and this, that and the other. We don’t really play courses that are straightforward like this. It’s neat to be able to see the line you’ve got to hit the ball into and have to go up there and shape it and place it correctly.”
Interestingly, he hasn’t quite seen every shot. In 2000, on his way to an 11-stroke victory, Woods finished his final round in near darkness because of weather delays. His 8-iron approach fell out of the sky and landed two feet from the hole while fans circling the greens held up lighters as if at a rock concert. He made the putt, of course, and then was awash in camera flash bulbs illuminating his wide smile.
Journalist and author David Shedloski of Columbus, Ohio, has been covering golf since 1986, first as a daily newspaper reporter and later as a freelance writer for various magazines and Internet outlets. A winner of 23 national writing awards, including 20 for golf coverage, Shedloski is currently a contributing writer for Golf World and GolfDigest.com and serves as editorial director for The Memorial, the official magazine of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. He is the author of three books and has contributed to three others, including the second edition of “Golf For Dummies,” with Gary McCord. He’s a fan of all Cleveland professional sports teams, the poor fellow.