Open champion Johnson relishing return in Akron

Jordan Spieth plays from a bunker during a practice round for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Coutry Club. Picture: Getty
Jordan Spieth plays from a bunker during a practice round for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Coutry Club. Picture: Getty
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Open champion Zach Johnson is relishing returning to action on one of his favourite courses in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron.

Johnson claimed his second major title by defeating Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a play-off at St Andrews last month, despite previously stating the Old Course was his least favourite on the Open rotation.

The 39-year-old also said he dislikes the “contrived” US PGA venue of Whistling Straits, but is a big fan of Firestone Country Club, a venue where he was sixth in 2011 and fourth in 2013.

“I love the golf course,” Johnson said ahead of today’s first round. “I don’t like to label or place or prioritise courses, but this is way up there for me.

“I love what this course demands. I think you’ve got to hit it straight. There’s a lot of tee shots into the fairways that are not flat so you’ve got to kind of angle it in there. The driver is important here. I like that.

“The greens are fast, everything that I grew up on, tight, bentgrass, Midwest-style golf course. There’s a couple of tee shots that are just brutal… especially for us modest hitters.

“But all that said, I just thoroughly enjoy what this course demands and how it needs to be played. I think we’ve seen guys that kill it one year, and we’ve seen guys that kind of plot their way around, Jim Furyk and that kind, that can do well. So I think it separates the field nicely at the end of the week.”

Forty-eight of the world’s top 50 players are in the 78-strong field, with just defending champion Rory McIlroy and American Chris Kirk absent due to injury.

McIlroy has not played since suffering an ankle ligament injury playing football with friends on 4 July and also missed out on the defence of his Open title at St Andrews.

The 26-year-old will be replaced as world No 1 by Jordan Spieth if the Masters and US Open champion can claim his first World Golf Championship title on Sunday, although the 22-year-old has precious little experience of the course. Spieth, who has been paired with Johnson for the first two rounds, finished 49th on his debut last year and failed to break par in any of the four rounds.

Tiger Woods won his last PGA Tour title to date and 79th of his career by seven shots in the Bridgestone Invitational in 2013, but the eight-time winner is currently ranked 262nd in the world and has failed to qualify for the first time since the event started in 1999.

Woods has floated the idea of playing the Wyndham Championship the week after the US PGA, which is the final regular PGA Tour event for players to get into the top 125 and qualify for the FedEx Cup play-offs. Woods tied for 18th at the Quicken Loans National last week, though that only moved him up 12 spots to No 185 in the FedEx Cup standings.

“Just win. It’s not real complicated,” Woods said of his play-off prospects “I’m not playing Reno this week or Bridgestone. By playing well in the PGA, that determines whether or not I’ll play Wyndham, and obviously the rest of the FedEx Cup play-offs.”

Winning the US PGA would move him into the top 60, though Woods hasn’t won a major in seven years and hasn’t won any PGA Tour event in two years. Otherwise, his only chance to crack the top 125 would be to finish second alone at Whistling Straits.

Woods hinted that getting close to the top 125 might be enough for him to consider going to the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, for the first time.

“A lot of it is dependent on what I do with the PGA and whether or not I have a chance to make the play-offs,” Woods said. “Right now, I’m so far off that I need to have a really high finish, and nothing higher than winning my fifth PGA would be nice.”

Woods isn’t alone in his plight. Luke Donald is No 127 in the FedEx Cup. He is not playing this week in Reno or at Firestone. Graeme McDowell is at No 159, though he gets a crack at what amounts to free points this week at Firestone, which has no cut. McDowell is eligible from being on the most recent European Ryder Cup team.