CROMWELL, Conn. – As I was leaving TPC River Highlands on Thursday afternoon, I decided to stop at the ninth green to watch some guys named Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Paul Casey putt out.
It proved to be one of the most exciting moments in my 50 years covering Connecticut’s premier sporting event.
Mickelson, the tournament’s only repeat winner (2001-02) – who became the oldest major championship title holder (50, now 51) when he captured the PGA Championship last month, barely got his approach on the ninth green, just a portend of what was to come.
After watching Casey and Watson hit their approach shots much closer, Mickelson rolled in a 63′ 8″ putt for birdie that caused him to raise BOTH arms and flash a toothy, face-wide smile as the fans who were back on the course after a one-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic let out a roar that might have been heard in downtown Hartford.
“To make those long ones is just a bonus,” a smiling Mickelson said. “You’re just trying to lag it up there close, and it just fell. Same thing on 10 after making a mistake and having that long par putt (40 feet). To make it was a nice little boost.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of that on the back nine. Still, I’m playing well and have a chance tomorrow to come out and get into the tournament for the weekend, which is exciting.”
Mickelson’s putt on No. 9 was his longest since a 65-footer at the 7th hole in the second round of the 2010 Memorial Tournament. Casey high-fived Mickelson and then made a 20-footer of his own for birdie that brought plenty more applause, though not at the decibel level accorded Mickelson.
Then Watson, trying to join World Golf Hall of Fame member Billy Casper for most tournament wins (four), had only a 10-foot birdie putt after hitting a 365-yard drive that flew over trees and cut a dogleg right, leaving him a 52-yard approach shot.
When Watson completed a birdie trifecta, he raised his right arm, plucked his ball out of the cup and danced across the green to high-five Mickelson and Casey.
A buzz surrounded the area for several minutes as the trio crossed a bridge to the 10th tee after a moment that will live in tournament lore. Unfortunately, they had little to celebrate on the risk-reward, water-infested back nine.
Mickelson, a Hall of Famer with 45 PGA Tour victories, saved par at the 10th hole but then bogeyed the par-3 11th and hit his second shot into the water, and made bogey at the par-5 13th. He finished under par when he made a six-foot birdie putt for a 1-under-par 69 and a tie for 45th.
Casey’s fourth consecutive birdie on No. 9 got him to 4 under and in the top-10. But the two-time runner-up at TPC River Highlands bogeyed Nos. 10, 11, 12, 13 and 18 while battling an ailing lower back to post 40 en route to a 71. He was eight shots back at T91.
Watson fared best in one of the day’s featured pairings, offsetting a bogey on the easy par-4 second hole with five birdies to finish T9 on 66, three behind unknown co-leaders Kramer Hickok and Japan’s Satoshi Kodaira, playing only his 35th round on the PGA Tour.
Hickok, a teammate of 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth at the University of Texas, bogeyed his first hole, No. 10, and then made seven birdies and 10 pars the rest of the way in a morning 63. Kodaira played in virtual anonymity on the opposite side of the course from the Watson-Mickelson-Casey tandem while carding six birdies and holing out his second shot for eagle 2 at No. 2 in his first 12 holes. A bogey 4 at his 17th hole, No. 8, denied him the outright lead.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau played behind Watson & Co. and had rather uneventful days. Johnson was 3-over after the first three holes but was 3 under the rest of the day despite continued putting woes, capping his day with birdies on the last two holes to post even-par 70 and a tie for 76th.
Koepka also bogeyed the first hole and was 1 over through No. 11 before one bogey and three birdies, including a six-foot putt at No. 18, in the final seven holes enabled him to finish in the red at 69. He tied his younger brother, Chase, who received a promised sponsors’ exemption after he and Brooks withdrew last year because Brooks’ caddie, Ricky Elliott, had tested positive for COVID-19. Chase made double-bogey 6 on his first hole, No. 10, but had six birdies, including at his last hole.
Finau had a day to forget with one birdie, five bogeys and one double bogey for 76, which beat only four other players in the 156-man field. One of the few whom he did best was Brian Keiser, the Connecticut PGA Championship winner from Longmeadow (Mass.) Country Club who had a birdie 2 at the 16th hole, five bogeys, three double bogeys and a triple bogey in an 83.
The second round begins Friday at 6:45 a.m. off the first and 10th tees.