By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AKRON, Ohio (Reuters) - Brandt Snedeker has yet to win one of the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) titles but the in-form American goes into this week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational firmly installed among the favorites.
Snedeker joined Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar as the only players with multiple PGA Tour wins this season with his victory at the Canadian Open on Sunday, and he is close to the spectacular form he displayed at the start of this year.
In his first five tournaments of 2013, Snedeker recorded four top-threes, including a two-shot triumph at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, before he was sidelined for five weeks because of a sore rib cage.
"It feels like two completely different years for me," the fast-talking, ever-smiling American told reporters while preparing for Thursday's opening round at the lush, tree-lined Firestone Country Club.
"First part of the year, I couldn't do anything wrong. I was playing fantastic, and I got injured.
"I've been fighting to get myself back to the way I was at the beginning of the year. I'm not saying I'm there, but I'm close."
Long regarded as one of the best putters in the game, Snedeker sealed victory by three strokes at the Canadian Open to earn his sixth career title on the circuit.
"It feels great to get a win, to validate all the hard work I've put in over the past three months where I haven't played my best and know that I'm working on the right stuff," the 32-year-old said.
"Now I get to try and do it all over again (this week)."
Snedeker faces several other in-form players in the 73-man field at Firestone, among them British Open champion Mickelson and Woods, who has won a season-high four times on the 2013 PGA Tour.
Left-hander Mickelson, who has not competed since clinching his fifth major title in the British Open at Muirfield nine days ago, believes he is playing some of the best golf of his life.
"Right now I'm playing as well as I ever have and want to make sure I stay focused this week and next week," the American world number two said on Tuesday, referring also to next week's PGA Championship, the season's final major.
"I want to make sure I give myself every chance to play well because I've been playing some of my best golf the last few months, as you've seen and as the results have shown."
Woods is always among the pre-tournament favorites heading into the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, having won the elite WGC event a record seven times.
"This is one of my favorite courses," said the world number one and 14-times major champion, who has recorded a staggering 11 top-10s finishes in 13 appearances at the tournament.
"There is nothing tricky about it; everything is right in front of you. And the fans do a great job of supporting the event. It's a golf course I like, and I've had a little bit of success on it."
Fellow American Keegan Bradley will be defending the title he claimed by one shot last year after closing with a superb six-under-par 64.
"It's a really special place for me and I'm excited to come back," said Bradley, who has yet to win on the 2013 PGA Tour despite piling up six top-10s in 19 starts. "The course is perfect for me. You must drive the ball well there.
"If you don't, you're not going to be able to score. It's a course that I've felt comfortable on the last two years, one that I feel like every time I play that I should have a decent shot to win the tournament. "
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)