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Bridgestone brings out the best

Invitational attracts top 70 golfers in the world

By Terry Pluto

Akron Beacon Journal

AKRON, Ohio

Imagine the top 70 baseball players in one place. Or the best 70 football players.

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That's the 2006 Bridgestone Invitational, an all-star weekend for golf, for which 78 players are arriving in Akron this week -- including the top 50 based on the Official World Golf rankings.

A first-place prize of $1.3 million and about $7.5 million in total to be handed out guarantee that Firestone Country Club is a place anyone with a driver in hand would play this weekend. Only next year's Players Championship has a higher purse.

So Tiger Woods returns, coming off his stunning 5-stroke victory in the PGA on Sunday. Every golf fan knows that's Tiger's 12th victory in a major. Most should know he loves to prowl Firestone, where he has won four times since 1999, including last year.

Also, Ben Curtis is back. He's the Kent State product who won the Booz Allen Classic to secure an invitation. This will be the second Firestone appearance for the Stow resident since he won the 2003 British Open.

Curtis is playing well, having won $1.3 million this year and making the cut for three of the last four majors. He invited Kent State golf coach Herb Page to spend some time with him at Firestone on Monday.

Page talked about the crowds not being as big, the players more relaxed. You can watch them putt, drive and work on every other shot in between.

It's like a chance to see Travis Hafner, Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols take batting practice. Or stand a few feet away from a catcher when Roger Clemens warms up.

"It's just such a great, great field," said Page.

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The course is worthy of the competition. One of golf's general rules is the best players tend to dominate on the top courses. So it is at Firestone, where Woods has ruled.

"It's a great event on a terrific golf course. It has all the elements of a major tournament," Stewart Cink, who won here in 2004, said in a recent interview.

Phil Mickelson won at Firestone in 1996 and has finished second three other times since. He won the Masters and had this year's U.S. Open won until. . . .

Golf fans know the rest of that story.

But the guy who did win the U.S. Open -- Geoff Ogilvy -- also is here.

Returning is Cink, who was just named to the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Stuart Appleby will be here, already having won twice this season. So is 26-year-old Kevin Stadler, son of well-known player Craig Stadler. He earned his ticket to Akron by winning the Johnnie Walker Classic.

After missing last season's Firestone with knee problems, Ernie Els is back and has five finishes in the top 10 this season.

Even the most casual golf fan can find someone to follow.

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Which brings us to touring the course.

On a sensational summer day with sun-splashed greens and huge shade trees, Firestone is just a nice place to spend a few hours.

Woods calls it "an old-school course" and says it with reverence.

He insists Firestone could host a major, adding the tournament "has a major championship feel to it."

Mark Twain wrote, "Golf is a good walk spoiled."

Many of us who have tried (and failed rather miserably) at the game can understand the frustration behind Twain's comments. But walking Firestone this weekend and watching the greatest in the world both succeed and flounder is such a relief; the pressure is all on them.

The fans get to be experts, or else they can just enjoy a cold soft drink and a hot dog while watching Woods dabble around the practice putting greens.

No matter who wins the tournament, Akron does -- and not just because of the national television exposure and the millions of dollars flowing to local businesses this weekend.

So if you care about golf, this is your week. It's also Akron's.

Take a stroll around the course. You won't be disappointed.

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