CROMWELL, Conn. – Bubba Watson considers Connecticut his second home, and who can blame him.
Bubba notched his first PGA Tour victory at TPC River Highlands in 2010 in a playoff with Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin, just two months before his father died of cancer. He was so overcome with emotion that CBS commentator Peter Kostis had to wait about a minute to start his interview as the then first-time winner had buried his face in his wife Angie’s shoulder and sobbed.
Watson, the jovial long hitter from Baghdad, Fla., triumphed a second time in 2015 and then again in 2018, besting Paul Casey each time on the way to earning $4,735,000 in 14 Travelers Championship starts that could buy a few of the lovely townhouses lining the golf course. But Bubba has also been the biggest donor to Connecticut’s premier sporting event, starting in 2016 with $100,000 to the Bruce Edwards Benefit Dinner which raised more than $1.1 million in honor of the Wethersfield native and longtime caddie of Tom Watson, who died of ALS.
Watson then donated $200,000 of the $1,260,000 he’d earned in 2018 so the tournament would have a profit of $2 million that “sounded a lot better than $1.8 million,” a smiling Bubba said at the time.
Then in February, he chipped in $25,000 toward the $1 million being raised by Travelers to help rebuild part of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang Camp for kids with serious illnesses in Ashford that had burned down.
Thanks to Bubba’s involvement, it took just four days to reach the target.
“There were a lot of things that Travelers was going to amp up (after becoming the title sponsor) in 2007, so golf was the last thing they were worried about,” Watson said.
“It brought a different atmosphere, and the crowd and community got behind it. And then finding my way through life, you do different things that are so impactful and meaningful.
“Going to different places around here like the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang Camp, seeing and feeling the energy of the kids, listening to the songs that they sang for me and my wife at lunch was amazing.
“And having my dad watch my first win to go with so many things that have happened with my family at this place means so much to us and gets me energized.”
Watson was plenty energized again Friday when he shot a second consecutive 4-under-par 66 which included a 60-foot birdie bomb on the seventh hole that moved him into a tie for second with first-round co-leader Kramer Hickok (69), who made a double-bogey 5 at the 16th hole to fall out of the lead. They’re one stroke behind Jason Day, whose bogey-free 62 was the low round of the tournament.
Bubba wasn’t even upset about a three-putt bogey on his final hole, No. 9, perhaps because he was fortunate to make a birdie at the par-4 second, where his driver head flew off his neon pink shaft mid-swing but still went 295 yards in a morning drizzle.
“Yeah, it was a perfect tee shot right down the middle,” joked Watson, who discussed his mental issues the past few weeks. “Chipped it in there and made the putt (from 10 feet) for birdie.”
Watson said the last time he could recall a driver breaking was at the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea, and he luckily carried a back-up for such a scenario. The two-time Masters champion was relieved that no one in the large gallery who were following him, Casey and Phil Mickelson were hit by the broken club.
A victory on Sunday would enable Watson to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament wins (with four).
Tournament officials were delighted defending champion Dustin Johnson and Mickelson, the only repeat champion (2001-02), each birdied three of the final four holes, including the last two, to make the cut right on the number at 2-under 138.
Brooks Koepka also made the weekend with a 4-under 136, highlighted by a 159-yard hole-out eagle 2 at No. 18.
Other marquee names headed for the weekend include Justin Rose (-7, 133), Patrick Cantlay (-6, 134), Ian Poulter (-6, 134), Bryson DeChambeau (-5, 135), Patrick Reed (-5, 135), two-time champion Stewart Cink (-5, 135), Zach Johnson (-4, 136), Paul Casey (-2, 138), and Adam Scott (-2, 138).
Chase Koepka, playing on a sponsors’ exemption, missed the 138 cut. He finished 142.
Three New England natives also missed the cut: Vermont’s Keegan Bradley bounced back with a 67 on Friday but missed by one shot (-1, 139), as did Western Mass. native Richy Werenski (-1, 139), and Connecticut’s J.J. Henry (+5, 145).
Rickie Fowler ballooned to a 75 on Friday and was sent packing too, along with Francesco Molinari (145).