AKRON It was a weeklong goodbye, one that brought 65 years of golf history to a close at Firestone Country Club.
The World Golf Championships - Bridgestone Invitational played out its final rounds last weekend as players, club officials, fans and volunteers said their farewells to the event prior to its move to Memphis next season.
As the week wore on, there were various events and moments when members of all of those groups had a chance to reflect on what the tournament had meant to them, but perhaps none spoke louder than the man who won the tournament more times - eight - than anyone else.
"It wasn’t easy to get back into this event. I had to play well this year and I’m really excited about being back here and playing the South Course in Akron," Tiger Woods said. "I’ve always been a fan of this golf course ever since I first played here in 1997. I remember playing here before it was even the World Golf Championships and it was the World Series of Golf. It’s always been one of my favorite golf courses on the entire tour and it’s unfortunate that it is leaving. The people have always come out and supported this event … it’s been one of the very few tournaments that is a small-town atmosphere and it’s a very simple, straightforward golf course, which we don’t see a lot anymore."
Woods, who has been beset by injuries in recent years and saw his world ranking tumble all the way out of the top 1,000 in the world more than a year ago, had to battle his way back to the top 50 in order to qualify for the WGC-Bridgestone event. He accomplished that with a strong run in the middle of this year, capped by a top-10 result at the British Open.
He, like the rest of the field, knew it would be their final chance to play the WGC-Bridgestone at Firestone’s famed South Course. Woods expressed disappointment that the tournament will no longer be played in Akron and wanted to make sure that he got back one final time to a course where he is tied with Sam Snead for the most wins in a single tournament in PGA Tour history.
"I needed to get in the top 50 to be able to make this event and that was certainly a goal of mine. I was hoping to be able to, one, to be able to play the tour long enough to get an opportunity, but I also had to play well enough to do it," Woods said. "As far as the future of this event, I know it has to move and it has to go forward off to Memphis, but it’s one of the reasons I’ve tried so hard just to get in this event, because it does mean something special to me."
His 2018 result wasn’t memorable in the way his eight wins were, but the reaction he received from galleries all weekend long suggested that a connection remains from those wins and the dominance that defined them.
Picking a favorite memory at Firestone seemed to be as difficult as getting back to the top 50 in the world for Woods, who admitted it’s hard to select a single memory. He hailed back to 2000, when he shot a record 21-under par to win and played the final three holes at a breakneck pace alongside playing partner Hal Sutton because darkness was descending rapidly and neither wanted to hang around an extra day simply to play one final hole.
Part of the reason Firestone Country Club and the tournament mean so much to Woods is the connection they hold to his late father, Earl, who passed away in 2006. He recalled coming to Cleveland as a teenager to visit a friend of his father and making the drive down to Akron with Earl to play at Firestone.
"This event has been very special to me over the years. It’s sad to see it (the tournament) leave Firestone … for me, I’ve always had such great memories of this golf course," he said. "I played here when I was an amateur with my dad and we played both courses that day and to be able to play when I was a junior golfer, (PGA) Tour golf courses is always a pretty neat thing to say. To be able to not only play a Tour course but to be able to win on it a few times is special."
The special feeling didn’t boost Woods' score on a weekend in which he described his final round simply as "bad golf," but it was clear seeing the way fans cheered his shots and shouted encouragement along the fairways that the memories of his many success on the course haven’t been lost.
Unfortunately for fans and volunteers - some of whom have volunteered at the tournament for as many as 59 years - the decision to move the event to Memphis is long since sealed. A PGA Tour Champions event will take its place, but that will undoubtedly draw fewer fans than attended the WGC-Bridgestone. But for a few final days, there was time to revel in the Akron-Canton area again being the unofficial sports capital of America as the Hall of Fame game and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions took place at the same time, just down the road in Canton.
With the final shot on Sunday, Justin Thomas won the event with a score of 15-under, officially closing the book on six and a half decades of golfing memories in a bittersweet day for all involved.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB