Post-major fields are not supposed to be this good.
This week’s PGA Tour event, the Travelers Championship, is being held the week following the third major of an already hectic, exhausting season.
Last week’s U.S. Open was contested at Pebble Beach Golf Links, which is located on the opposite coast of this week’s Tour venue, TPC River Highlights – situated a (Brooks Koepka) driving iron outside of Hartford, Connecticut. The best of the best would seem to be too tired to make the trek. Yet, many of them are.
Among the marquee names who’ll be teeing it up this week in New England include world No. 1, and U.S. Open runner-up, Brooks Koepka, alongside top-ranked stalwarts Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Francesco Molinari, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood, and Tony Finau, among others. Viktor Hovland, the super amateur, who will be making his professional debut this week, is another popular name to follow.
This field would be considered stout any week, let alone the week following a major championship. It will be a challenging week for defending champion Bubba Watson, who despite a game that seemingly does not fit the course, has won here three times. Bubba seems to thrive on the raucous crowds, which comprises the Tour’s second-most attended event.
With so many great players and intriguing storylines, in a tournament rich with tradition and history, this is not an event that should be missed.
Tournament: Travelers Championship
Dates: June 20-23, 2019
Where: Cromwell, Conn.
Course: TPC River Highlands
Distance: Par 70, 6841 yards
Architect: Pete Dye
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,296,000
Defending Champion: Bubba Watson
TV & Online
Rd 1: Thu 3:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Rd 2: Fri 3:30-6:30 pm (GOLF)
Rd 3: Sat 1:00-2:45 pm (GOLF)
Rd 3: Sat 3:00-6:00 pm (CBS)
Rd 4: Sun 1:00-2:45 pm (GOLF)
Rd 4: Sun 3:00-6:00 pm (CBS)
Dating back to 1952, the Travelers Championship has an illustrious history. The tournament has very close ties to the insurance industry, in addition to legendary entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. whose name was even in the tournament title for a number of years.
The inaugural 1952 event was won by Ted Kroll, and the event boasts notable past winners such as Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Burke, Jr., Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Paul Azinger, Greg Norman, and Phil Mickelson. Casper’s four victories are the all-time record.
A great deal has happened during the tournament’s 67-year history, but two things especially stand out. In 2003, Suzy Whaley, a local teaching pro, made the Travelers field after winning the 2002 Connecticut Sectional PGA Championship. She became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event in nearly 60 years.
Her inclusion led to the Tour’s adoption of the eponymous “Suzy Whaley” rule, stating that all qualifiers need to play those qualifying events from the same tees, the result of controversy stemming from Whaley having played the women’s tees in the championship.
Whaley missed the cut by 12 strokes, but it was an extremely notable accomplishment, and several women have followed since, including Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie, and most recently Brittany Lincicome.
In November of last year, Whaley became the PGA Tour’s first female president.
In 2016, the lowest score in the history of the PGA TOUR occurred at the Travelers Championship, as Jim Furyk carded nine birdies and an eagle in his first 12 holes on Sunday en route to a record 12-under 58. Furyk’s round jumped him 65 spots up the final leaderboard, into a share of 5th place. In the process, Furyk also became the first player in PGA Tour history to record two sub-60 rounds.
Hole of the Week
No.15, TPC River Highlands
Par 4, 296 yards
2017 average: 3.911 (6th easiest)
The shortest par-4 on the PGA Tour doesn’t mean it’s the easiest, as the past six editions have seen nearly as many double bogeys and worse (53) as there have been eagles (56).
“I think what’s so great about the hole is that it basically almost forces you to go for it, if that makes sense,” Jim Furyk said in 2017. “There’s really no other really good option.”
A lake stands guard left of the 15th green and a small bunker lurks on the front right. Where the difficulty lies, though, is in a green that has four distinct quadrants. A wedge from layup distance to the proper quadrant is no less a challenge than taking aim for the green.
With almost 40 percent of the plays last year resulting in birdie or eagle, even a par can leave a player feeling he’s lost ground. Case in point: In 2017, Daniel Berger, who played the hole in just 1-under par for the week. He wound up on the wrong end of a playoff with Jordan Spieth (three birdies).
Perhaps the most dramatic highlight at No.15 took place in the 1995 edition, when Greg Norman’s Sunday chip-in for eagle and Fuzzy Zoeller’s bogey created a three-shot swing that put the Aussie in front to stay.
2018 Travelers Championship: 8 eagles, 134 birdies, 220 pars, 87 bogeys, 10 double bogeys, 1 higher
The power rankings this week include some interesting positioning, starting with world No.1 Brooks Koepka ranked behind players such as No. 48 Chez Reavie, while excluding world No. 6 Justin Thomas completely. As always, proceed with caution.
The Travelers Top 10
Power Rank-Player (OWGR)
10. Bryson DeChambeau (10)
9. Jordan Spieth (28)
8. Brooks Koepka (1)
7. Paul Casey (15)
6. Chez Reavie (48)
5. Bubba Watson (22)
4. Francesco Molinari (6)
3. Patrick Cantlay (8)
2. Marc Leishman (23)
1. Jason Day (18)
Sleeper Pick: Peter Malnati
Aside from a brief hot streak early in the 2016 season that saw his only PGA Tour victory, which came in a fall series event, Peter Malnati, the 32-year-old Indiana native has not done a lot with his Tour opportunities, posting just four top 10s in 127 starts. However, the man who got his 2019 Tour card through last year’s Web.com Tour finals has been taking advantage of his most recent opportunity and seems determined to not need to go that route again.
After missing five of his first eight cuts to being the season, Malnati has made 10 of his past 11, with three finishes of T17 or better in the past two months. He looked especially good at the recent Memorial Tournament where he led the field in greens in regulation and posted four straight rounds of par or better, including a pair of weekend 69s to finish T17, which he then followed up with a 66-68 start at the RBC Canadian Open two weeks ago.
He also played well at River Highlands a year ago, beginning the event with a 6-under 64 that had him just one stroke off the first round lead held by Zach Johnson and Jordan Spieth. Malnati’s putter has been the best part of his game this season, which is important at this short course.
Storylines To Follow
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.
Stat of the Week
185 – Defending Champion and three-time Travelers Championship winner Bubba Watson currently ranks 185th on Tour in strokes gained: putting out of 207 eligible golfers. A regular on Tour since 2006, Bubba has never been a great putter, but if he does not improve that particular stat, it will be the worst of his career.
Among the more troubling parts of his on-green work, he ranks 194th in putts per round and 207th in three-putt avoidance.
On a short course like TPC River Highlands, Bubba’s success seems a little strange, but something about this venue just clicks for him. Do not be surprised if the large crowds again seem to bring out the best in all aspects of his game.
“I never got caught up in playing for history, seeing how many majors I could win, or rewriting the record books. Those are selfish objectives, and the guy who chokes usually does because dwells on what it all means to him. I was only worried about my family. And although I had my share of failures, it was never because I choked.”
– Billy Casper, four-time Travelers Championship winner
The event’s most successful player, Casper had a phenomenal career for anyone, let alone someone who did not focus on making history. The Hall of Famer won 51 times on Tour, which ranks 9th all-time, and captured three major championships (1970 Masters, 1959 and 1966 U.S. Open).
Jeff Shain contributed to this preview.