The PGA Tour returns to action this week following the season’s third major at Pebble Beach, where Gary Woodland took home his maiden major title at the 119th U.S. Open.
On tap this week is the Travelers Championship from Cromwell Connecticut, where Bubba Watson returns to defend his 2018 title, while looking to tie Billy Casper for most tournament wins with four. Bubba will be joined by another fan favorite in Phil Mickelson, who makes his long-awaited return Cromwell after a 16-year absence, despite winning back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002.
Other storylines include Brooks Koepka‘s state of mind following some “uncharacteristic stumbles down the stretch” at Pebble with so much history on the line (and does the “Major King” even care about regular PGA Tour events at this point); plus the world’s top rookie makes his pro debut; and a look at some players who enter New England off impressive performances in Northern California.
1. Bubba Defends
Two-time Masters Champion Bubba Watson has shown an extreme level of comfort at TPC River Highlands, as three of his 12 career victories have come in this event. The most recent was a year ago, when he carded eight birdies over his final 14 holes to post a 7-under 63 and finish off a furious rally, winning by three strokes after beginning the final day six strokes back of Tour vet Paul Casey, a man he had defeated in a playoff in this event three years earlier.
It was his third victory of a resurgent season for the now 40-year-old, who was very disappointing in 2017. However, he has not won again in the 12 months since, and would love to tie the legendary Billy Casper for the most Travelers wins all-time, with four apiece.
Watson posted a number of strong finishes earlier in the season, but has stalled out badly since a T12 at The Masters, with two missed cuts and a T63 in his last three starts. He posted two 75s at Pebble Beach last week to miss the cut at the U.S. Open for the third consecutive season.
2. Brooks Bounce-Back?
World No. 1 Brooks Koepka is the biggest name in this week’s Travelers Championship field. When he played here a year ago, he was fresh off his second consecutive U.S. Open victory.
This year? He certainly played well in his attempt at a U.S. Open three-peat, shooting 10-under, which would’ve destroyed the field any other year, but resulted in “just” a runner-up this time. The bigger issue was that he had some uncharacteristic stumbles down the stretch, and it’s easy to wonder what his mental state will be coming into this week, and whether he’ll have the drive to put away the competition in a “regular” event.
Koepka has two wins on the season and has finished 1-2-1-2 in his last four major starts, but this week – as a regular Tour stop – is far from predictable. Will he be the Brooks who finished fourth at the recent Wells Fargo Championship; the player who was T50 at the RBC Canadian Open just two weeks ago; or something in-between?
He was T19 here a year ago, kind of just playing in second gear until a final-round 65 jumped him 19 spots up the final leaderboard.
3. More of Pebble’s Stars
Koepka is not the only player at TPC River Highlands this week who had success at Pebble a week ago. Chez Reavie was paired with Koepka in the penultimate Sunday group, and held his own, finishing at T3, his best showing by far in a major championship. The 37-year-old tends to be streaky and now has finishes of 18th or better in four of his past five starts. His one Tour victory came over a decade ago, but there is reason to think No. 2 might be in his sights this week, despite the exhaustion that comes with a first time in major contention.
Chesson Hadley was T9 at Pebble, despite never having finished inside the top 60 in a major before. Like Reavie, his best outings come in bunches, so he is another one who will not necessarily wilt the week post-major.
Other players in the Travelers field coming off a strong major week include Louis Oosthuizen (T7), Viktor Hovland (T12), Francesco Molinari (T16), Byeong Hun An (T16), and Sepp Straka (T28, final-round 67).
4. A Big-Time Pro Debut
World No. 1 amateur Viktor Hovland of Norway missed out on a major payday at Pebble Beach last week. A stellar Sunday 67 got the 21-year-old defending U.S. Amateur Champion to 4-under for the week, breaking the all-time event amateur record previously set by the legendary Jack Nicklaus at the 1960 U.S. Open, and finishing in a tie for 12th.
Now, having little left to accomplish with an “(a)” after his name, Hovland will no longer be playing for free, as he made the sage decision to turn professional this week. Best of all? Hovland is in the field for the Travelers Championship, making this his professional debut.
His professional stardom seems inevitable, and those who want to be able to say they saw his beginnings need to tune into this week’s coverage.
5. Phil Returns To Cromwell
Surprisingly, in the 66-year history of the Travelers Championship, only one man has won two titles in a row: Phil Mickelson, who pulled off the feat in 2001 and 2002. Mickelson came back in 2003, finishing a surprising T58 in the three-peat attempt, and has not been back since.
That is until now, as the man who turned 49 on U.S. Open Sunday makes his first Travelers start in 16 years. Once again, Mickelson did not have the storybook ending at Pebble Beach he’d dreamed of, as a very up-and-down week resulted in a T52 as another chance slipped by to complete the career grand slam.
Now, playing his first event while less than a year short of Champions Tour eligibility, Mickelson is coming into TPC River Highlands in horrific form, as a T18 at The Masters is his only finish of better than T37 in 10 starts since winning the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. Still, he has added two victories to his 44-win PGA Tour total over the past two years, and rarely looks his age. The field will definitely be aware of his presence.
Storylines originally appear as part of The Starter for subscribers only on Mondays.