The PGA TOUR Champions majors streak continues with the Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. The field is full for the fourth play of the event at Firestone. Retief Goosen won in 2019, Jerry Kelly won in 2020, and Steve Stricker is the defending champion for 2021. All three are in the field this year. Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS dates back to 1983, when Miller Barber won at Beechwood, Ohio, and Arnold Palmer won the next two years. Chi Chi Rodriguez, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus all won in the early years of the event. The Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS winner 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 on PGA TOUR Champions. Since his return from illness in early May, he has been amazing. He won the Regions Tradition and earned two runner-up finishes in six starts. Most recently, he caught Padraig Harrington at the US Senior Open Championship. He has talked about continuing to try to get his body into 100 percent shape for constant competition since his return. If he’s healthy, he has to be a favorite to win. Last year at Firestone, Stricker opened with a ridiculous 63 with no bogeys and went on to win. This event means a lot to Stricker in particular because of the carrot at the end. He still enjoys playing on the PGA TOUR and the winner at Firestone will play Stadium Course next year.
2. Steven Alker
He did not finish in the top 10 at the US Senior Open. He has become such a force that the sentence above is somewhat shocking. However, he came close with a T11. Alker has eight top-10 finishes and three wins in 11 starts this season and remains largely No. 1 in the Schwab Cup standings. This will be his first Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS. Remember, he didn’t make his debut as a PGA TOUR champion until late August of last year at the Boeing Classic when he qualified on Monday. Alker already has a major title this season in the Senior PGA Championship. The New Zealander has plenty of time to score at Firestone Country Club. He ranks 18th in driving distance and leads the PGA TOUR champions in eagles, birdie rate and scoring rate.
3. Jerry Kelly
Kelly won in 2020 and is coming off a T7 at the US Senior Open, so she deserves to be on this list. Kelly hit 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 second last year at Akron behind his old friend Steve Stricker. Kelly is playing as well as he has all year at this point. He won the Principal Charity Classic, finished T3 at his hometown event in Madison and then a T7 at the US Senior Open. Before this stretch, he hadn’t gotten to his rhythm. He was ranked 14th in the Schwab Cup standings and is now ranked No. 6. With a win at Firestone, he would launch a serious pursuit of Steven Alker for the Schwab Cup.
4. Justin Leonard
Leonard will make his debut as a PGA TOUR champion on a really tough golf course. The winning scores for the past three years are 7-under, 3-under and 6-under. Only two players have finished the tournament under par in each of Bridgestone’s last two SENIOR PLAYERS. All this to say that it will not be an easy place to make his debut. The 12-time PGA TOUR winner and major champion (1997 Open Championship) hasn’t played on the PGA TOUR regularly since 2016. He played AT&T Byron Nelson in May of this year (72-71, MC). Leonard is the latest big name to join PGA TOUR Champions in the last three years. He will definitely get a lot of attention and it will be exciting to see how his game compares.
5. Ernie Els
He finished T5 at Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS in 2020 and just 5th in 2021. Definitely a place that suits The Big Easy. He played at Firestone 19 times while on the PGA TOUR and had a pair of top-10 finishes. Els has five top-10 finishes this season in 12 starts but is yet to earn a win. He is ranked 10th in the Schwab Cup standings.