Firestone: Home of the Rubber City Open Has Come a Long Way

By: Marino Parascenzo

It was called the Rubber City Open. It didn't quite have the same ring as, say, the St. Petersburg Open, the Dapper Dan Open, or even the Insurance City Open.

But there it was, a stop on the growing pro golf tour in Akron, Ohio, back in the days when American tire companies actually made their tires in the U.S. of A. and, most of those it seems, in Akron, a nice and thriving city in northeast Ohio. You had your Goodyear and your Goodrich and your Seiberling, etc., and then there was your Firestone, a name so distinctive that it might have been the best known of all. Even factoring in the Goodyear Blimp.

That was back in the 1950s, when your winners were guys like Tom Nieporte and Ed Furgol, and also Tommy Bolt, who didn't always throw an offending club as people would have you believe. Sometimes, he'd leave it buried head-deep in the sod for the caddie to pry out on his way by. Arnie Palmer also won there, in 1957, en route to becoming Arnie Palmer.

Firestone Country Club opened in 1929, the flower of enlightened corporate benevolence. It was Harvey Firestone's contribution to his employees, their park and club. Somewhere along the line, someone wanted a course with a bit more muscle, and Robert Trent Jones was summoned. Not Bobby Jones, the immortal amateur, but Trent - that's the name he answered to - who was to golf course architecture what thousand-pound bench presses are to muscle.

He added 50 bunkers, ponds at Nos. 3 and 16, plenty of subtle fairway rolls and a fine-tuning of the greens. At something over 7,000 yards with a par of 70, it became a heroic Trent Jones course and went on to being the host of one of the longest running parties in the history of the game. Beginning with the Rubber City Open, there's been an annual tournament going on there for about 60 years. In 1974, Firestone hosted the American Golf Classic, the CBS Golf Classic and the World Series of Golf, said to have been the only time one club hosted three televised events in the same year.

Now add the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational running this week, the 57th playing of what started as the World Series of Golf.

How big-time golf got to be a fixed point at Firestone is anyone's guess. Availability of the course would be a good start. And it didn't hurt that there was good theater to be had. If there was one thing that triggered Firestone's reputation, it was the crash-and-burn of Palmer in the 1960 PGA Championship. Palmer was the hottest golfer in the world at the time, coming in with the Masters and U.S. Open titles in hand, and just a few weeks after almost winning the British Open.

No Grand Slam this time, but three out of four wouldn't be bad. Plus this was Arnie Palmer, the Paul Bunyan of golf. He never met a golf hole he didn't want to bash, for better or for worse. A collision with Firestone's 16th was inevitable.

The 16th was already known as "The Monster," a good example of the devilish mind of Trent Jones. It's a downhill par-5, slight dogleg-left, with trees on the left, measuring 625 yards, a staggering length for the wooden woods and low-tech balls of that time. At the end of that stretch sat a green much too small to hit from any distance. Nobody had ever hit it in two. And with a pond in front and a mess of rough behind, what sane golfer would want to try?

Palmer, with his strength and length and frame of mind, figured to eat Firestone alive. Except at the 16th, where he ended up in a ditch near the green, made one of the most famous triple-bogeys in the game, and shot himself out of the '60 PGA. The young "King" Arnold had stumbled and fallen on his sword. The winner, by the way, was Jay Hebert, not a member of the muscle crowd.

The 16th played even harder when they shortened it to, say, 585 yards. Because then some guys were tempted to go after it in two. But those who lacked the muscle tried to play it prudently. Lee Trevino once made a 9, and even so, got upstaged by Ben Crenshaw. Crenshaw was in the rough with his lay-up. Just a flip wedge across the pond would do the trick. But he got too refined and watered the shot. Then Crenshaw drew a blank or something. Instead of backing up and dropping safely in the nice, neat fairway, he dropped right there in the rough. He watered that one, too. Then he dropped there again, and watered again. Well, he left with an 11 and with the noblest of intentions. "I'm going back to my motel," Crenshaw muttered, "and practice dropping on the rug."

Nicklaus remembers a par he once made at the 16th the way a Titanic survivor remembered the lifeboat. It was one of the great pars of history. It helped him win the 1975 PGA.

He hooked his tee shot into a lateral hazard to the left, had to take a penalty drop, then hit a 6-iron across the fairway into the rough behind a tree, then laid open a 9-iron and lofted the shot over the tree and pond and onto the green, 25 feet from the hole, then made the putt. He had parred the 16th without touching the fairway.

"Well," Nicklaus said then, "I made a lot of 25-footers to save par."

Lon Hinkle invented a shot when he won the 1979 World Series. He couldn't carry the trees from the right, so for his third shot, he opted to punch a 6-iron through a 10-foot gap. The ball skipped twice across the pond and ran up on the green. "I was playing for one bounce," Hinkle noted.

The 16th is playing at 667 yards these days.

Firestone South has been called a boring course. It's a series of parallel holes, back and forth, with maybe two doglegs of consequence, and no cute tricks. Just climb in the ring and slug it out.

"Flat wore out my 4-wood," said Trevino, who nevertheless won there once.

For all of the muscle required by Firestone, a bunch of light hitters have beaten it, Mike Reid and Bill Rogers, for example. Jose Maria Olazabal set a bunch of scoring records in the 1990 NEC World Series of Golf. The course was playing at 7,149 yards - huge at that time. He opened with a 9-under 61, totaled an 18-under 262 and won by 12.

Olazabal also won in 1994, but that was across the road at Firestone North, which was used because of trouble with the greens on South. Ollie got upstaged this time by the "John Daly Dust-Up." In the final round, Daly - on his way to an 83 - hit into the group in front of him, in disgust or something. That group included Greg Norman, who laughed it off, and a club pro whose accompanying parents did not. It seems the guy's dad and Daly had words near the pro shop later, and as Daly turned to leave, the dad jumped him from behind. Daly reflexively rolled him off his shoulder and down they went. The guy scraped his elbow on the pavement. The story spread fast that Daly had beaten up on the dad. That wasn't true, but it did help feed the legend of John Daly.

The history of Firestone South needs to be separated out. It hosted three PGAs, also the American Golf Classic in 1961 through '76 (minus the three PGAs), and it spawned a strain of the World Series of Golf (WSOG).

The WSOG was the brainchild of TV producer Walter Schwimmer. The first 14 of them brought together the winners of the four majors, but that format changed with the times, like a biblical progression: The original four-man WSOG begat the next WSOG (bigger fields), begat the NEC World Series of Golf, begat the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational, begat the current WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Bridgestone, a Japanese tire company, entered the picture through Firestone mismanagement. Following the Radial 500 tire scandals of the 1970s, Firestone was bought by Bridgestone, the current owner, which still produces the Firestone brand and also makes golf equipment.

Firestone golf history is divided into two periods, or rather, two guys divvied it up. First the Jack Nicklaus Era, in which Nicklaus won five there times. Now it's in the Tiger Woods Era. Woods has won there seven times.

The second of them, in 2000, was more pure theater. Storm delays had Woods, leading by 10, playing the final hole in near darkness. He didn't want to return on Monday, so from 168 yards he hit his 8-iron in the general direction of the green. And stuck it about 3 feet left of the pin. It was his "Shot in the Dark" win. He made the putt and won by 11.

Woods won four times earlier this season but has been rather erratic of late. Even so, he will be the huge favorite again at Firestone for this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. He's already played it in the dark. He could play it blindfolded.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional honors. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.