Tiger Woods returns to the scene of his most recent victory when he tackles the WGC Bridgestone in Akron, Ohio, just making the elite field a testament to the superstar's resilience. "This event has been very special to me over the years. I'm excited to be back," said 14-time major champion Woods, who has climbed from 656th in the world to start the year to 50th -- barely making the field for a tournament he has won an astonishing eight times. That includes his victory in 2013 -- his most recent win anywhere.
Since then, Woods has been hampered by the back trouble that led to spinal fusion surgery in April of last year.
"I went from just hoping to be able to play the tour to now that I feel that I can play the tour," he said. "I certainly can win again."
And where better to prove that than Firestone?
"It has always been one of my favorite golf courses on the entire tour," Woods said. "It's a very simple, straightforward golf course, which we don't see very often anymore. It's one of the reasons why I tried so hard to get in this event, is because it does mean something special to me."
A ninth victory at Firestone would also put Woods closer to his goal of playing in the Ryder Cup -- as well as serving as an assistant to US captain Jim Furyk.
"You know he's going to play well this week," American Justin Thomas said of Woods.
"This place is like Augusta for him. He could probably take two, three weeks off and he's going to get it around here fine, because he knows how to. He's won here as many times as I've won everywhere in my career.
"I am surprised he hasn't mentioned that yet -- which is nice," quipped Thomas, who will play alongside five-time major winner Phil Mickelson in the first two rounds, when Woods tees it up with Australian Jason Day.
No faking it at Firestone
World number one Dustin Johnson, who bounced back from his missed cut at Carnoustie with a Canadian Open win last week, hasn't enjoyed that kind of sustained success in Akron, where his victory in 2016 is his only top-10 finish in eight starts.
"You can't fake it around here," Johnson said. "You really know where your game stands when you're playing this golf course. You've got to hit every club in your bag and you've got to hit good shots with all of them."
Francesco Molinari, grouped with Johnson in the first two rounds, hasn't found Firestone too hospitable, never finishing better than a tie for 15th in seven prior starts.
But the 35-year-old Italian arrives with new confidence after his triumph at Carnoustie, a major breakthrough that followed on the heels of a dominant victory at the Quicken Loans National and a tie for second at the John Deere Classic.
In a season that also included a victory on the European Tour's BMW Championship, Molinari has risen to a career-high sixth in the world -- and reassessed his own abilities.
"When you go out on the course and you're playing with some of the best players in the world, you confront yourself with them," Molinari said. "I think a few years back, obviously, I was competing against them, but I always felt like they had something that I didn't have.
"And now it feels like I can play with them and, you know, I don't feel intimidated in any way."