The First Look: Travelers Championship
Bubba Watson lands third win at Travelers
Bubba Watson defends his title and seeks to join the late Billy Casper as the only four-time winner of Connecticut’s annual PGA TOUR stop, as the circuit switches coasts back from Pebble Beach for its 36th visit to TPC River Highlands.
Brooks Koepka is slated to make the trek one week after his quest for a historic third consecutive U.S. Open title, while Phil Mickelson is set to end a 15-year absence from a place where he became the tournament’s only back-to-back winner in 2001 and ’02.
FIELD NOTES: Patrick Cantlay, whose first visit to Greater Hartford as a 2011 amateur featured a 60, is back for his fifth appearance. He’s just three weeks removed from winning the Memorial Tournament for his second TOUR win. … Paul Casey, who couldn’t close out a four-shot lead heading to last year’s final round, is back in search of an elusive Hartford win. He also was a playoff loser to Watson in 2015. … England’s Tommy Fleetwood will get his first look at TPC River Highlands. … Outgoing U.S. Amateur champ Viktor Hovland and Oklahoma State teammate Matthew Wolff are set to make their professional debuts. Two other freshly minted pros accepted invites – Collin Morikawa makes his third pro start and Justin Suh his second.
FEDEXCUP: Winner receives 500 points.
STORYLINES: Watson, who preceded last year’s victory with playoff wins in 2010 and ’15, now sets his sights on Casper’s Hartford standard. Casper captured what was then the Insurance City Open in 1963, following with victories in ’65, ’68 and ’73. … A Watson triumph also would lift him alongside Mickelson as the event’s only back-to-back winner. … Mickelson sets foot at River Highlands for the first time since 2003, when he tied for 58th in his bid for a three-peat. That’s when the event was played in August, rather than following the U.S. Open. … Each of the past five Travelers champions has won after playing the U.S. Open, though Russell Knox’s 2016 victory gets an asterisk. An Olympic shakeup that year moved the Travelers back to August. … Just four New Englanders have won in Hartford, though two came back-to-back in 2005 (Brad Faxon) and 2006 (J.J. Henry). The others are Paul Azinger (1987, ’89) and Bob Toski (1953). … The Travelers has gone to a playoff in each of the previous three odd-year editions – 2017 (Jordan Spieth), 2015 (Watson), 2013 (Ken Duke).
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 18, 2019
COURSE: TPC River Highlands, 6,841 yards, par 70. Located about midway between Hartford and New Haven, River Highlands is the third course to occupy the property and enters its 36th year as a PGA TOUR venue. Pete Dye oversaw a complete redesign of the former Edgewood Country Club in 1982, and Dye protégé Bobby Weed offered an upgrade nine years later in consultation with former TOUR pros Roger Maltbie and Howard Twitty. The spotlight falls on Nos. 15-17, which play around a four-acre lake and create a finish considered among the most thrilling on TOUR. River Highlands is the site of the TOUR’s only 58, when Jim Furyk reeled off 10 birdies and holed out for eagle at the par-4 No.3.
For those visiting Greater Hartford, must-play courses include Lyman Orchards GC (Middlefield, Conn.) and Richter Park GC (Danbury, Conn.). Book your reservations via TeeOff.com.
72-HOLE RECORD: 258, Kenny Perry (2009).
18-HOLE RECORD: 58, Jim Furyk (4th round, 2016).
LAST YEAR: Watson wiped out a six-shot deficit for the second time at River Highlands, chasing down Casey with a 7-under-par 63 for his third victory of the 2017-18 season. After posting 33 on the front side, the lefty heated up with five birdies after the turn. A birdie at the drivable par-4 15th lifted Watson into a tie with Casey, and he moved in front when his second shot at No.18 stopped 3 feet from the flagstick for a closing birdie. Casey followed up a Saturday 62 with a 72, falling into a share of second with Stewart Cink (62), Beau Hossler (66) and J.B. Holmes (67). Watson also overcame a six-shot deficit to win in 2010, eventually capturing a playoff with Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank for his first PGA TOUR victory.
HOW TO FOLLOW
TELEVISION: Thursday-Friday, 3-6 p.m. ET (Golf Channel). Saturday-Sunday, 1-2:45 p.m. (GC), 3-6 p.m. (CBS).
PGA TOUR LIVE: Thursday-Friday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. (featured groups). Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (featured groups), 3-6 p.m. (featured holes). International subscribers (via GOLF.tv): Thursday-Friday, 11:030 to 22:00 GMT. Saturday-Sunday, 13:00 to 22:00.
RADIO: Thursday-Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 1-6 p.m. (PGA TOUR Radio on SiriusXM and PGATOUR.com).
Phil Mickelson’s quest to end US Open nightmare is on its last legs
Phil Mickelson will turn 49 Sunday, the day of the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
What are the chances that he’ll be standing on the first tee at Pebble on the final round with a chance to win on that day?
Regardless of his age, because of who he is, how he embraces the big moments, how motivated he remains and what he’s done, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he is in the mix to win the U.S. Open on Sunday.
If he is in the hunt, this is what Mickelson will face: Completing the career Grand Slam as a winner of all four major championships.
It’s a feat that’s been accomplished by only five players in the history of the game — Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and most recently Tiger Woods.
Since Mickelson won the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, this week will mark his sixth attempt at completing the Slam.
Mickelson has finished runner-up a record six times in the U.S. Open, the most recent his second-place finish in 2013 at Merion.
A U.S. Open is something Mickelson desperately wants to win for a couple of reasons. The Slam, of course. But it always has been his most coveted major championship title, even before he won his first major, the Masters in 2004.
His realistic window of opportunity, of course, is closing before his eyes.
What if it never happens after all of those close calls?
“No matter what, he’s going to be one of the greatest players that’s ever played this game,’’ Tiger Woods said. “How he’s viewed and whether he wins the career Grand Slam or not, I still think he’s one of the best players to ever pick up a golf club.
“There’s only five guys that have done it, so that’s the hard part,’’ Woods went on. “It’s just one of those fickle things. You’ve had some of the greatest champions of all time that have been missing one leg of the Grand Slam [Arnold Palmer, for example, never won a PGA Championship].
“So, for a person [Mickelson] who we all know hasn’t driven the ball as straight as he would probably like, he’s had six seconds in the U.S. Open. That’s incredible to be there that many times. He’s figured out a way to play well in the U.S. Open. It just happens to be one of those things where he hasn’t won, but he’s been there. And wouldn’t surprise me if he’s there again.’’
— New York Post (@nypost) June 9, 2019
There is some mojo going for Mickelson, too, at Pebble Beach, where he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. He’s won the AT&T four times and the last time the U.S. Open was played at Pebble, he finished tied for fourth in 2010.
Overall, this will be Mickelson’s 27th U.S. Open in a professional career that has included 44 victories and five major championships.
“There’s not much I could do right now that would do anything to redefine my career, but there’s one thing I could do, and that would be to win a U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “So if I were to do that, it would change the way I view my career because there are only, what, five guys that have ever won all the majors. And you have to look at those guys differently.”
“The difficulty is not the age,’’ he said. “The difficulty is that when you’re in your 20s you feel like you have multiple chances’. And when you’re turning 49, you’re like ‘I’ve got two more chances, this year and maybe [in 2020 at] Winged Foot [where he finished runner-up in 2006] and that’s about it. With that being the only one in the four that I haven’t won, and what it would offer me and how I look at my career, I put more pressure on it. That’s the difficult thing.
“It would be pretty special to be part of the elite players that have won all four. To me that’s the sign of a complete game. It would redefine my career.’’
“I don’t think about [the Grand Slam] a lot,’’ he insisted, but added, “I do think about what I have to do to win a U.S. Open. And it’s getting increasingly difficult.’’
Paul Azinger, the former player who is now an analyst for NBC, wonders whether Mickelson’s burning desire to finally win a U.S. Open will increase the degree of difficulty. But he, too, believes this week is set up well for Mickelson.
“Of course he wants it too much,’’ Azinger said. “[But] he’s going to a place that he knows like the back of his hand. There’s not a better scenario for Phil Mickelson to get a U.S. Open. Expectations will by sky high … off the charts. He’s already trying to deflect — saying his winning there [in February] has no bearing whatsoever [on the U.S. Open]. He’s an artist at redirecting pressure. The redirect is a great gift.
“But I can’t tell Phil how to think; he can’t teach me how to think,’’ Azinger went on. “He knows how to think. Phil is disciplined enough and he knows what he’s doing. Phil has proven he can play in the elements and he knows the greens. You’ve got to know how the ball is going to bounce and react on those poa annua grass. A lot of guys are going to misjudge that first hop. But Phil won’t. He’s been there for most of his life.’’
Mickelson’s grandfather, Al Santos, was one of the first caddies at Pebble Beach. Mickelson said his grandfather carried a 1900 silver dollar in his pocket while he worked, and passed it down to Mickelson, who uses it as a ball marker whenever he plays there.
“What an American dream,’’ CBS golf commentator Jim Nantz said. “Instead of what his grandfather was making, 25 cents a bag, now he’s going to close out the career Grand Slam on the sacred sod of Pebble Beach, what a story that would be. The story is too good and his record is too good there for me to overlook it.”
Said Azinger: “I think six seconds should equal one win. I’d lobby for that.’’
Of course, golf doesn’t work that way.
“I have such great memories here,” Mickelson said. “I would love to add to it.”
Graeme McDowell’s career is back in gear — at just the right time
When Graeme McDowell surprised the golf world by winning the 2010 U.S. Open, he was a twentysomething swinging bachelor just beginning his ascent into a world-class player. Now the Ryder Cup star returns to another Open at Pebble on the cusp of turning 40, married with two kids and a stepdaughter, a partner in a thriving business (Nona Blue, an Orlando tavern) and having just brawled his way out of the longest slump of his career. “It’s definitely been the fastest and craziest ten years of my life,” McDowell said recently in his lilting Northern Irish brogue. “What a ride it’s been. And I’m not ready for it to be over just yet.”
McDowell’s breakthrough at Pebble Beach actually began two weeks before the Open, when he went 64-63 on the weekend to win in Wales, his fifth victory on the European Tour. He spent the ensuing three or four days “celebrating with the boys” at his home base in Lake Nona, Fla. McDowell’s game was so sharp and his confidence so palpable that Ricky Elliott, a pal who now caddies for Brooks Koepka, was all set to plunk down $500 for G-Mac to win the U.S. Open at 66-1 odds.
“I said, ‘Listen, I’m feeling good, but I’m probably not going to win,’” McDowell recalls with a chuckle. “‘Just to be safe, place the bet each way to cover your a–.’”
Pebble turned out to be the perfect venue for McDowell’s efficient game, built as it is on precise iron play and deadly putting. After a second-round 68, he held a two-stroke lead. That night he strolled into Brophy’s Tavern in Carmel, which McDowell calls “the unofficial caddie headquarters of the U.S. Open.” Billy Foster, who was then looping for Lee Westwood, broke out into song: Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” That tune played in McDowell’s head throughout the fraught final rounds.
The Sunday leaderboard was spectacular, with Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Dustin all factoring in the drama. But only McDowell refused to crack. He became the first European winner of our national championship since Tony Jacklin in 1970, and that night wound up, inexorably, in a boozy celebration at Brophy’s. “When I got behind the bar and started spraying people with the soda gun,” says McDowell, “I think that’s when my friends started saying, ‘Okay, let’s get this guy back to the hotel.’”
McDowell made another run at the 2012 U.S. Open, narrowly missing a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to fall one stroke short, and he kept piling up wins, rising as high as fourth in the World Ranking. Along the way he hired the former Kristin Stape to decorate his house in Lake Nona, and then wound up marrying her, in late 2013. A daughter and a son soon followed. “Fatherhood is the greatest thing in the world,” he says, “but it was certainly an adjustment. Golf very quickly was no longer the most important thing in my life.”
Just like that, McDowell’s expectations are very different for Pebble Beach (champs are exempt into the ensuing ten U.S. Opens) and Royal Portrush (where he has a golden opportunity to play his way into the field at this week’s Canadian Open). Is it time to run out and start placing bets again?
“Well, let’s not get carried away,” McDowell says. “But I was never going to be satisfied returning to Pebble as a ceremonial golfer. It’s not the legacy, it’s not the impact I want to have in this game. I know I have one more big run in me. I have a vision of getting back to the top of the game one more time. How cool would it be if Pebble Beach is once again the launching pad?”