Don Padgett looks forward ‘to the next chapter’ of pro golf in Akron, fondly recalls big WGC moments

The first professional golf tournament Don Padgett III attended was the 1980 World Series of Golf.

Padgett, now the executive director of the Bridgestone Invitational, was 5 at the time. Padgett’s father, Don, had recently moved his family to Akron. The elder Padgett was named the head pro of Firestone Country Club in 1980, and later became general manager.

The younger Padgett remembers getting a T-shirt with the World Series of Golf logo on the front and “Jack is back” on the other side. The latter was in reference to Jack Nicklaus winning the U.S. Open and PGA Championship — major titles Nos. 16 and 17 of his career — that year.

“For a number of years, I would get a hat, and my goal would be to get every player’s signature on the hat,” Padgett said. “I would usually get to being about two or three away by the weekend, and I would be like, ‘Dad, I need your help. I can’t get these guys.’ So we would kind of cheat and he would take me up to the locker room, and we’d get the last two or three. But I would have a pairings sheet and I would check them off. That was my goal. More times than not, I got it all knocked out.”

Padgett hasn’t missed many of the PGA tournaments that have been held at Firestone in that 38-year span — he says college got in the way a time or two. But he’s been in a special spot since 2007, when he was hired to run the tournament he grew up watching.

Next week will be a finale of sorts for Padgett, the tournament’s staff and its army of volunteers. The Aug. 2-5 Bridgestone Invitational will be the tournament’s last as a World Golf Championships event. Memphis will get Akron’s spot on the WGC schedule in 2019, and Firestone will become the new home of the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship.

If Padgett is sentimental about the change, he’s not letting on.

“I’m looking forward to the next chapter. I really am,” he said. “I think it’s really cool that the guys who have played here for years and years are all excited about coming (in 2019).”

There’s no question, however, that the replacement will be a couple steps down from its current status, which is one of the premier tournaments on the PGA Tour — one that has been won by Tiger Woods a record eight times.

If you’d prefer to look at the bright side, Woods made a late run to barely qualify for the last Bridgestone Invitational, ticket sales are up, and next week should be a heck of a show.

The 2018 Bridgestone will be the 65th anniversary of pro golf at Firestone.

In that time, there have been 88 PGA Tour events, and 38 of the tournaments have been won by golfers who have a major championship on their respective résumés. Eighteen of the 38 are World Golf Hall of Fame members — a list that will grow as Woods and others are added.

This year, all 50 of the world’s top golfers will be in Akron. If Tiger makes a run at win No. 9 at Firestone, which would stand alone in the PGA record books, that would be a fitting end to a terrific event.

Asked for his top memories of pro golf in Akron, Padgett, not surprisingly, points to two that featured Woods, who defeated Padgett on the final hole of the 1991 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.

In 2000, Woods’ shot in the dark on No. 18 capped a dominant victory in the WGC-NEC Invitational.

“If he hadn’t been 10 shots ahead … If he had knocked it in the bunker (with an 8-iron from 168 yards out), I don’t think he could have finished (the round),” Padgett said. “It was that dark. They were trying to get to the next tournament. If it was close, they would have said, ‘Guys, we gotta come back tomorrow.’ “

A year later, Woods defeated Jim Furyk in a seven-hole playoff at Firestone.

“They just kept going back-and-forth between 18 and 17, 18 and 17,” Padgett said. “Usually, you just don’t see playoffs go that long.”

There are plenty of other fond memories for Padgett, who said his childhood aspirations involved competing in tournaments, not being in charge of them.

“Like any other kid, I wanted to play,” he said. “My dream was to be on the PGA Tour. I played college golf. I was a good college player, but I’d seen the best in the world come through Firestone, and at the end of my college career, I knew a day job was going to be in my mix.”

That job will continue, though it will be different. Big names will be back at Firestone next year, but they’ll be from the Champions tour, not the top 50 of the world golf rankings.

First, there’s another Bridgestone Invitational to host.

Next Sunday, Aug. 5, there might even be a Tiger on the prowl.

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