AKRON, Ohio – The Bridgestone Invitational used to be known as the Tiger Woods Annuity.
Ever since it became a World Golf Championship in 1999, Woods has won this tournament seven times. He also was a runner-up, and he really suffered a setback one year when he bogeyed three of his last seven holes and tied for fourth.
This year figures to be as good a gauge of any tournament when it comes to the state of his game.
It was evident how far off he was in 2010 when he beat only one player in the field and had the highest 72-hole score of his career. He was completing his divorce back then and was in dire need of a coach, which he found a week later. Last year, Woods came to Firestone having not played in nearly three months as he let injuries to his left leg heal. That wasn't a reasonable test because of rust, and he tied for 37th, putting him in the middle of the pack.
It's different this time.
Woods already has won three times this year, all of them coming off tough tracks — Bay Hill, Muirfield Village, Congressional.
"I didn't play most of the summer last year," Woods said. "I think last year when I played Thursday, that was my first 18 holes walking a golf course, so a little different scenario this year. I've had a little better year, and overall just feel infinitely better than what I did physically last year."
Asked if the Bridgestone Invitational would be a measuring stick for his game, Woods artfully dodged the question. He talked about a big event with the best in the world a week before the final major. It's a good way to get prepared for the PGA Championship, along with testing his game.
But he made no secret about his love for Firestone.
"This is one of my favorites," he said Wednesday before going out for a practice round. "It's straightforward. It's right in front of you. There's no tricks."
Woods won at Bay Hill for the seventh time. He also has won seven times at Torrey Pines, which includes the 2008 U.S. Open. There has long been an argument which is his best course, and a victory this week would be his eighth at Firestone.
A win also could be enough to return Woods to No. 1 in the world, a spot he vacated nearly two years ago. All that tells him is that he has been winning. But it would be another sign that he's headed down the right path, if there isn't enough evidence already.
"I feel very comfortable where I am at because everything is progressing," Woods said. "This year, I've taken the steps headed in the right direction and shot better scores and been more consistent. When you make changes like I've made in my game, it takes a little bit of time, and things are starting to click in now. And to have three wins this year, it's headed in the right direction."
But if there's a curiosity about the state of the game, Woods has to share the spotlight on Thursday when the Bridgestone Invitational.
With the defending champion, no less.
Adam Scott closed strong at Firestone a year ago to win his first World Golf Championship. The Australian is more known as the guy who threw away a chance to win his first major two weeks at the British Open, when he made bogey on his last four holes to lose a four-shot lead and finish as the runner-up to Ernie Els.
How does he recover from that? Scott made it sound like he was well on his way.
"There wasn't that much healing for me," Scott said. "My game is in really great shape, and I just took a few days to rest up, and I certainly analyzed the last few holes a little bit and took out of it what I wanted, and then just though about how great I played. I felt like it was my week, and I played like a champion, but ... I played four poor holes at the end, and you can't win and do that.
"It's just motivation for me," he said. "I think I'm on the right track. Keep doing what I'm doing and I can get myself more chances like that."
Scott headed to his home in the Swiss Alps and spent most of the time on the couch — his own, not one belonging to a psychologist. That's what he usually does after a major, only this time he was occupied with phone calls and text messages of support.
The first call came from Greg Norman, his golfing mentor and someone who knows about major heartache. There were text messages from Els, and even one from Rory McIlroy, who a year ago blew a four-shot lead at the Masters with an 80 in the last round.
"The pain is there, I know that," Els said. "But he's handling it unbelievably well, and I truly think that he now believes he can win multiple majors. He had an opportunity. It didn't quite happen his way. But if you look back, Nick Price in the early '80s did the same, basically gifted Tom Watson one at Troon. And there's been quite a few situations like that. So he's not the only one.
"And he's young enough where he can bounce back and win quite a few."
McIlroy bounced back from his devastating final round at Augusta National by winning the next major with a record score at Congressional in the U.S. Open.
"I sort of felt like I knew how he was feeling," McIlroy said. "I just said to him, 'Don't let the last four holes hide the fact that you played better than everyone else for the first 68. ... It's tough. It's a tough loss. At that moment in time, you think it's the only chance you're ever going to get, and your whole world came crashing down. But in reality, Adam is such a great player that he's going to have plenty of chances to win more major championships."