The series of major tournaments on PGA TOUR Champions continues with the Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. The field is loaded for Game 4 of the event at Firestone. Retief Goosen won in 2019, Jerry Kelly won in 2020 and Steve Stricker is the defending champion from 2021. All three are on the court this year. The Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS date back to 1983 when Miller Barber won in Beechwood, Ohio, with Arnold Palmer winning the following two years. Chi Chi Rodriguez, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus all won in the early years of the event. The winner of the Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS earns a spot in THE PLAYERS Championship on the PGA TOUR next March at TPC Sawgrass.
Here are five players to watch.
Always an intriguing watch when competing in PGA TOUR Champions. Since returning from illness in early May, he has been amazing. He won the Regions lore and had two second-place finishes in six starts. Most recently he caught Padraig Harrington at the US Senior Open Championship. He said he has always been trying to get his body back to 100% shape for constant competition since his return. If he’s healthy, he has to be a favorite to win. Last year at Firestone, Stricker started with a ridiculous bogey-free 63 and then took the win. This event means a lot to Stricker especially because of the carrot at the end. He still enjoys playing on the PGA TOUR and the Firestone winner will play on the stadium course next year.
Did not finish in top 10 at US Senior Open. He has become such a force that the previous sentence is a bit of a shock. He approached it with a T11. Alker has eight top 10 finishes and three wins in 11 starts this season and remains a distant No. 1 in the Schwab Cup standings. These will be his first Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS. Remember, he didn’t make his PGA TOUR Champions debut until late August last year at the Boeing Classic, when he qualified on Monday. Alker already has a major title this season at the Senior PGA Championship. The New Zealander is long enough to score at Firestone Country Club. He ranks 18th in driving distance and leads the PGA TOUR champions in eagles, birdie average and scoring average.
Kelly won in 2020 and is coming off a T7 at the US Senior Open, so he deserves to be on this list. Kelly made a now famous ace on the 12th hole at Firestone Country Club that propelled him to victory two years ago. Also, don’t forget that he finished 2nd last year in Akron ahead of his longtime friend Steve Stricker. Kelly is playing as well as him all year now. He won the Principal Charity Classic, finished T3 at his hometown event in Madison, then a T7 at the US Senior Open. Prior to this stretch, he hadn’t hit his stride. He was 14th in the Schwab Cup standings and is now number 6. With a win at Firestone, he would be in serious pursuit of Steven Alker for the Schwab Cup.
4. Justin Leonard
Leonard will make his PGA TOUR Champions debut on a really tough golf course. The winning scores for the last three years are 7 under, 3 under and 6 under par. Only two players have finished the tournament under par in each of the last two Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS. All that to say, it won’t be an easy place to debut. The 12-time PGA TOUR winner and major champion (1997 Open Championship) hasn’t played regularly on the PGA TOUR since 2016. He played AT&T Byron Nelson in May of this year (72-71, MC). Leonard is the latest big name to join the PGA TOUR champions for the past three years. He will definitely attract a lot of attention and it will be exciting to see how his game performs.
5. Ernie Els
Finished T5 at Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS in 2020 and fifth solo in 2021. Definitely a fitting spot for The Big Easy. He played 19 times at Firestone on the PGA TOUR and finished in the top 10 twice. Els has five top 10 finishes this season in 12 starts but is yet to win. He ranks 10th in the Schwab Cup standings.