The Travelers Championship might not have quite the cache of last week’s U.S. Open, but it is still a fantastic yearly test that has had no shortage of unforgettable moments.
The weeks immediately following majors historically struggle to draw much of a field, given all the exhausting work that goes into major competition, but with TPC River Highlands, the host course for the Travelers, being located in Cromwell, Connecticut, a short distance from U.S. Open venue Shinnecock Hills, an intriguing amount of big names are scheduled to compete this week.
Among those big-name players are back-to-back U.S. Open Champion Brooks Koepka and defending Travelers Champion Jordan Spieth, in addition to Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, and Paul Casey, among others.
Here are the storylines to watch most closely when the Travelers Championship takes off on Thursday:
1. SPIETH DEFENDS
The 2017 Travelers Championship brought about one of the most iconic moments of the season. Jordan Spieth, the 54-hole leader in the midst of an underwhelming final round, was caught from behind by Daniel Berger, and then needed to get up and down out of a bunker on 18 just to make par and bring the tournament to extra holes.
Again in the playoff, Spieth found himself in a greenside bunker, but this time he holed the shot for the victory, exploding into a joyous celebratory chest-bump with caddy Michael Greller.
The moment was best explained by Berger, who referred to the hole-out as “Jordan doing Jordan things”.
Now, Spieth comes back to defend his Travelers title, but is doing so in puzzlingly poor form. Since a solo-third place finish at The Masters in April, Spieth has made six starts, missing three cuts and not posting as much as a top-20 finish.
The main culprit? His putter.
Lauded in his career as an exceptional putter, he has been a mess with his flat stick this year, and he currently ranks an unacceptable 188th on Tour in strokes gained: putting. For comparison, Spieth finished in second in the same statistic in 2016. He still ranks highly in nearly every other measurable part of his game, but on the greens, he appears stuck in his own head.
Spieth has earned an excellent reputation in major championships. Just 24 years old, he has already won three, and if he is able to capture the PGA Championship in August, he will become just the sixth player to win the Career Grand Slam, with only Tiger Woods doing it younger.
Despite that reputation, though, Spieth was awful at last week’s U.S. Open, missing the cut after a 78-71 start – his first missed-cut in a major. Perhaps most frustratingly, on Friday, Spieth birdied 13, 14, 15, and 16 to get in front of the cut-line, but then bogeyed both 17 and 18 to fall one-stroke short of the weekend.
Oddly, though, Spieth actually putted well at Shinnecock Hills, gaining 3.4 strokes on the field on the greens over those two days. This time, his issues were tee-to-green, which is a rare thing for him to struggle with. He currently ranks 4th on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and has finished highly in each of his years on Tour.
He should be encouraged that his putting stroke was finally not a liability last week, but it might not help his confidence that even with the putter going, he was unable to be relevant for the sixth-consecutive tournament.
Spieth’s Travelers win was a big one, as he became just the second player in PGA Tour history (Tiger Woods again) to capture 10 titles before his 24th birthday. Spieth added another victory in his very next start, at the Open Championship, but has not won since. He has few, if any doubters, in his ability to regain his status among the elite.
Could this be his week? It will all come down to what is going on between his ears. For almost his entire career, that has been a strength, but as of late, he just has not been all there.
2. KOEPKA FLYING HIGH
Jordan Spieth might be racking his deep subconscious for a solution to his recent woes, looking to re-ignite the automatic behaviors that have made him one of the most accomplished young golfers in PGA Tour history, but one man with no such problems is Brooks Koepka.
The 28-year-old bomber with finesse successfully defended his 2017 U.S. Open title by finishing atop last week’s U.S. Open leaderboard at Shinnecock Hills. The back-to-back victories are especially impressive when taking into consideration how different the past two U.S. Opens have played.
Koepka reached 16-under at the red number scorefest at Erin Hills in 2017, tying the tournament record to par. Shinnecock Hills was a completely different animal, as this time, Koepka’s winning score was 1-over par.
Koepka has shown a penchant for the big events, and plays the majors with an inspiring amount of confidence. When he is playing his game, he does not think anyone can beat him. He hits the ball a mile, his iron game is solid, and his putting is incredible for such a long hitter. Koepka’s game is one of the most complete on Tour right now.
With Cromwell, Connecticut being so close to Shinnecock Hills, Koepka is staying in the area and teeing up at the Travelers Championship. Based on form, his chances rate right up there with the favorites, and he has a positive course history, finishing T9 in his only appearance in 2016, but what about the fatigue and distraction factor?
Is his mind going to able to focus on a much-lesser event this week? It helps that Shinnecock Hills was not his first major victory, but many are still expecting a Koekpa let-down, as often happens with champions in his position. When he won at Erin Hills last year, he did not tee up in another event for over a month, at The Open Championship, where he finished T6.
Having missed nearly four months of the current season with a wrist injury, perhaps the lower mileage he has logged is allowing an event he might not otherwise play.
3. STATE OF FURYK?
Appearing to be nearing the end of a stellar PGA Tour career, Jim Furyk has not made much noise as a player over the past two seasons. Most references to the 48-year-old now are related to his role as Captain of September’s Ryder Cup, where he will have a lot of talent at his disposal and difficult choices to make.
In August of 2016, however, Furyk had a round of 58 at the Travelers Championship, which cemented him in PGA Tour immortality as the lowest round in history. The 12-under round jumped him from one of the first Sunday groups out, all the way up to a tie for fifth, overshadowing the victory of Russell Knox in the process.
In his return to TPC River Highlands last season, Furyk did not have another sub-60 round in him, but a 67 and two 68s were good enough for a respectable T26, his third best finish of the season.
Furyk, a 17-time PGA Tour winner, has not made a lot of appearances this season, with this week in Cromwell being his 11th start of the season. His results have been largely poor. A seventh place finish at the Valspar Championship in March is his only top 40.
His short game has been just okay, and while he is ninth on Tour in driving accuracy, that number is at a just 274.6 yard average drive, which ranks 207th on Tour, out of 207 qualifying golfers.
Furyk’s short, steady play might not be super exciting, but it did almost lead to a “turn back the clock” type week at the U.S. Open. The 2003 U.S. Open Champion needed a rare special exemption from the USGA to tee up at Shinnecock Hills, but for at least 54 holes, he made the best of it.
His iron game clicked on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, leading to rounds of 73, 71, and 72 in brutal conditions, respectively, and at 6-over, he went into Sunday just three strokes off the lead. Sunday, however, was not his day. A 10-over 80 dropped Furyk 41 spots down the final leaderboard, from seventh place into a tie for 48th.
As terrible as Sunday was, there was at least a little to be encouraged by coming into TPC River Highlands, a shorter course that might fit the current Furyk perfectly.
4. SHINNECOCK STUDS
Only one name was carved on the U.S. Open trophy after four physically and mentally exhausting days at Shinnecock Hills. Brooks Koepka, however, was not the only man to leave Long Island feeling good.
A number of big-name contenders had encouraging weeks at the year’s second major, and several of those are also scheduled to play the Travelers Championship.
The 25-year old two-time PGA Tour champion got his first taste of major contention this past weekend. A shockingly great third-round 66 (perhaps more than a bit aided by a favorable tee time) allowed Berger to rocket 44 spots up the leaderboard, into the co-lead and a date with Tony Finau in the final Sunday pairing.
Three bogeys in his first six holes proved too much for Berger to come back from, but he rebounded well after that and finished in a very respectable T6.
If Berger’s great performance at Shinnecock Hills gives him more confidence coming into TPC River Highlands, that could be scary for the rest of the Travelers field. In his 2016 debut, Berger was the 54-hole co-leader, largely off the strength of a third-round 62. He ended up finishing T5. The following year, he caught Jordan Spieth down the stretch to force a playoff, and if not for Spieth’s otherworldly bunker shot in the playoff, he might very well be the defending champion this week.
With a ferocious Sunday start, with birdies on five of his first seven holes, Masters Champion Patrick Reed briefly jumped into the U.S. Open co-lead, and put himself in fantastic position to start the major season 2-for-2. He cooled off considerably at the turn, but a final round 68 was still good for a solo-fourth place finish.
It is not just majors where Reed gets hot, he has seven top-10s on the year, including six in his last eight starts. He also has been excellent in his last two trips to TPC River Highlands, finishing T5 last year, and T11 in 2016. His amazing work ability around the greens should make him a tremendous threat for a third straight high Travelers finish.
Another elite young gun on the PGA Tour, Xander Schauffele followed up his surprise T5 finish at last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills with a T6 this year at Shinnecock Hills. A final-round 68 was one of the best Sunday scores in the field, and led to his best finish since he was runner-up at THE PLAYERS Championship last month.
Schauffele has not won since last year’s Tour Championship, but he is very much one to look out for at the Travelers, as he is coming in hot and he finished T14 in his tournament debut last year.
5. SHINNECOCK DUDS
While Koepka, Berger, Reed, Schauffele, and others will be trying to build off positive momentum from Shinnecock Hills, there are also several elite talents who will be trying to bounce back from an awful showing at the season’s second major.
The four-time major winner McIlroy took his U.S. Open prep very seriously, renting a house close by and spending significant time at Shinnecock Hills.
However, he came out of the gate looking like he had never seen the course before, playing his first 11 holes in a whopping 10-over. He ended up shooting 80 on Thursday, and while Friday was considerably better, particularly his 4-under back nine, a second-round 70 still left him two strokes short of the cut line.
Rory made news at TPC River Highlands last year when he had to use three different putters over three days, but his game was clicking wonderfully on Sunday for a field-low 64 that led to a T17 finish. He has been frustratingly inconsistent this season, but it should not shock anyone if he puts it together in Cromwell.
Day has a fantastic U.S. Open record, but he looked completely lost at Shinnecock Hills, and his 79-73 start meant a missed cut for the former World No. 1.
Day looked to be back to near-elite form after a victory at the Wells Fargo Championship and a T5 at THE PLAYERS Championship, but after a hot 68-68 start at The Memorial, he tanked his weekend, and then was even worse at the U.S. Open.
His short game is the best the world has to offer, which undeniably gives him an advantage at TPC River Highlands if his memory is short enough. He will need to be much better with his irons, though. This will be his second Travelers appearance, missing the cut in 2017.
Despite being a shorter course, the long-hitting Watson has long professed his love for TPC River Highlands, and the results show it. Bubba won the Travelers in both 2010 and 2015, was runner-up in 2012, and finished fourth in 2013. It is a course that very much fits his eye.
After a very underwhelming 2017 PGA Tour season, Bubba rediscovered his game earlier in 2018, tallying wins at the Genesis Open and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a T5 at The Masters.
He has slumped badly in five starts since Augusta, though, and the low point of his season had to be the 77-74 start at Shinnecock Hills that left him home for the weekend.
Fortunately for him, the Travelers might be the best place to get his tremendous rebound season back on track.