AKRON, Ohio — The landmark at Firestone Country Club is among the most popular in America, a massive water tower in the shape of a golf ball on a tee.
Tiger Woods has reason to see only a big ATM machine.
Woods has eight wins at Firestone, one more than Matt Kuchar has won on the PGA Tour. In 15 appearances, he has made $11.06 million, which is roughly the same as Tom Watson has made in four decades on the PGA Tour.
OK, that’s not a fair comparison. Watson played at a time when total prize money at tournaments was about the same as a first-place check today. Firestone featured the biggest payoff on the PGA Tour schedule — majors included — when Watson won in 1980. He earned $100,000.
Then again, Watson might be the perfect reference point for the peculiar plight of Woods.
For example, who could have imagined one year ago that when Woods returned to the Bridgestone Invitational as the defending champion, he would be four spots behind the 64-year-old Watson in the FedEx Cup? Or that Watson would have as many rounds in the 60s on the PGA Tour this year — four — as Woods?
Consider how different Woods’ future looked a year ago.
Coming off his seven-shot win at Firestone (his fifth win of the year), Woods was tugging at his back seven days later during the final round of the PGA Championship. Two weeks later, he dropped to his knees with a back spasm during the final round of The Barclays. And two months into this year, he was out of golf for three months because of back surgery.
That explains why Woods is at No. 215 in the FedEx Cup, and why is unlikely to qualify for the playoffs barring a quick turnaround.
Woods won’t rule that out.
Not with two big tournaments at courses where he has won, starting with Firestone and then the PGA at Valhalla, where Woods took the title in 2000.
“Is there any added pressure coming into this event? No,” Woods said Monday. “I’ve won in this event eight times, so I know how to play under various conditions, various circumstances. Certainly, I’ll draw upon those experiences and at all the events that I’ve played in that I’ve won throughout the previous years. I’ve been able to win on this property. And that does help.”
He will need all the help he can get.
Woods faces two big weeks that will shape the rest of his season — whether he’s playing or watching from home, assuming he even watches golf on television.
And he’s not alone.
It’s easy to single out the struggles of Woods because his bad times are rare, and they look even worse when the only natural comparison is with his own unthinkable rate of winning. But he’s not the only player in dire need of good golf.
Two weeks remain before Watson knows which nine Americans automatically earn spots on his Ryder Cup team.
Woods is so far down the list at No. 70 that even if he were to win the $9 million World Golf Championship this week, he still wouldn’t crack the top 20 in the Ryder Cup standings. All that would do is make it easy for Watson to pick him. In fact, Woods might only need to show a pulse this week at Firestone (though based on his two starts since his return from back surgery, that’s no guarantee).
Phil Mickelson is slightly better off. He is No. 11 on the strength of last year, when he won the British Open and was a runner-up at the U.S. Open. Mickelson won at Firestone before it was a WGC. He had the 36-hole lead at Valhalla in the ‘96 PGA Championship. But that was then. Lefty, who holds the U.S. record by making nine straight Ryder Cup teams, has not had a top 10 on the PGA Tour since last August.
One glimpse of last year shows how quickly times can change in golf.
Of the top nine players in the final standings for the Presidents Cup last year, only two of them are among the top nine in the Ryder Cup standings — Matt Kuchar and Jason Dufner, the PGA champion who is barely hanging on at No. 8.
Brandt Snedeker, who qualified at No. 2 for the Presidents Cup team last year, is No. 27 in the Ryder Cup standings.
Keegan Bradley is No. 16. He hasn’t won a tournament in two years. Hunter Mahan was left off the Ryder Cup team in 2012. He is No. 34 going into the final two weeks.
Steve Stricker? He is No. 39 in the standings. And that part-time schedule could shrink even more. Stricker, who has never missed the Tour Championship since the FedEx Cup began in 2007, is at No. 117 and barely assured of getting to the first playoff event at his point.
Six players from the last U.S. Ryder Cup team are not eligible going into these last two weeks. Watson gets only three picks.
Jack Nicklaus couldn’t imagine Woods being left off the team.
“If I was a captain ... I don’t care what he does between now and then,” Nicklaus said. “If Tiger wants to play, I would certainly choose him.”
That’s easy for Nicklaus to say.
All four times that Woods played for Nicklaus in the Presidents Cup, he was the No. 1 player in the world.