Travelers Championship Interview: Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth holed a 61-foot bunker shot to win the 2017 Travelers Championship in a playoff over Daniel Berger and one of the most replayed photographs from 2017 is Spieth shown here celebrating with a spontaneous body-bump with his caddy Michael Greller.

CROMWELL, Conn. – It’s nearly a year since Jordan Spieth’s historic shot that produced the most memorable moment since the PGA Tour began making an annual stop in Connecticut 66 years ago.

So what is Spieth’s fondest memory of the 61-foot bunker dunk on the first playoff hole that beat close friend Daniel Berger and won the 2017 Travelers Championship in his tournament debut?

“I thought what looked like a choreographed club throw to rake toss (by caddie Michael Greller) was pretty special,” a smiling Spieth said Tuesday after playing the back nine at TPC River Highlands. “I don’t think we could do that again no matter how many times we tried. Michael just throwing the rake up in the air, and the fact that nobody got hurt with either one of those was great, too, and with the chest bump that neither one of us got hurt.

“I blacked out. I saw the ball go in, and at the time I hit the shot, I’m looking up, almost trying to read it as it goes by the hole. I knew it was a good shot, and I was almost trying to read that whatever three-footer I was going to have coming back. And then it drops and you just react.

“I’ve never done that before in celebration. I’ve thrown clubs, but not in celebration. When I hit a bunker shot or chip shot, I kind of release it and the club kind of twirls. So the club comes halfway down the shaft in my hand instead of staying on the grip. So if my hands are still on the grip and I really threw it, it could have hurt somebody. Instead it was like throwing the middle of the baton and throwing it.

“In the back of my head, I saw the bank of the bunker and I knew no one was going to get hurt, so I threw it there. Then the next thing you’re worried about in the back of your head is Michael going to go chest bump or side bump. So I think I went side while he went chest, which is better than the other way around.

“There’s been a lot of pretty bad celebrations on the PGA Tour. There’s been a lot of missed high-fives, and I’ve been part of plenty of them. It’s pretty hard to miss when I’m going into Michael for a chest bump. But I just remember kind of Quite the detailed memory about something that occurred nearly 52 weeks ago. Then again, it was historic, so you really don’t ever want to forget any nuance.

Spieth’s shot was the first winning bunker shot in overtime in PGA Tour history and enabled him to join Tiger Woods as the only players in the modern era to win 10 times by the age of 24. He also joined Ted Kroll (1952, first year of event), Sam Snead (1955) and Phil Blackmar (1985) as the only players to win their tournament debut.

But none of that trio did anything close to resembling Spieth’s shot in the amphitheater surrounding the 18th green that he said caused the ground to shake and left an indelible memory for generations.

“I don’t regret anything of the celebration,” Spieth said, smiling again. “I thought it was just pure emotion. I was in the zone, in my own world walking up to the green. When I saw it afterwards, instead of kind of playing along with situation, I was kind of head down to get the ball out of the hole and quiet everyone down (so Berger could hit his 55-foot putt from the fringe to tie).

“But it’s never about the people, the noise, any of that. It’s more for me, the situation, the golf shot. I felt the moment, and that’s where I was loving. Then it was, ‘OK.’ I had it, now Daniel’s got his turn. Let’s chill out. Once that was done, then it was time to celebrate.”

Spieth, No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking, will play the first two rounds this year with former Travelers Championship winners Marc Leishman and Russell Knox, starting Thursday at 12:50 p.m. off the first tee. That threesome will precede the high-powered tandem of No. 2 Justin Thomas, No. 7 Rory McIlroy and No. 10 Bubba Watson, a two-time champion.

Rory McIlroy, ranked World No. 7, will be joned by newly crowned U.S. Open Champ Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth as tournament favorites going off at 12 – 1 odds.

A year ago, Spieth was near the top of his game, opened with a 7-under-par 63 and never looked back before his dramatic winner. But he missed the cut in his last two starts, the Memorial Tournament and U.S. Open, largely because his normally strongest club, his putter, has let him down. He is averaging 29.26 putts per round, 127th overall on the PGA Tour, and ranks 201st on putts between 15-20 feet.

“I was really striping it last year coming in,” Spieth said. “I felt great about my ball-striking, but my putting wasn’t up to form and I didn’t hit a lot of practice putts. I just said, ‘You know what, I grinded all last week so just go play.’ And I didn’t putt great at last week’s tournament, but I hit the ball so well.

“I’ve kind of got to where my putting is making a lot of progress right now. It’s getting back to where it could be top level. And in that process, I’ve spent a lot of time on the putting and less on the swing, and that’s gotten off, so I’m just not sure. I’m not sure the state of my game is right now. The key for me this week is just to get out in the first round and not try to do too much.

“Ninety percent of the tournaments the last two years I’ve thrown out my chances to win on Thursday. I’ve had to do too much from then on. The only tournaments I won, I averaged good scores in the first round and I’ve had a chance to win Sunday, and that’s by trying not to do so. Just hit greens and let the flow of the golf course come to you.”

After spending the weekend in New York after missing the U.S. Open cut, Spieth came to Connecticut on Sunday night, hit balls with McIlroy on Monday and then played nine holes on Tuesday with Doug Ghim, who also missed the Open and will be making his pro debut on a sponsors’ exemption. Ghim received the 2018 Ben Hogan Award after being low amateur in the Masters during his senior year at the University of Texas.

“This is a dream come true, to do it here at a venue like this,” said Ghim, who tried Spieth’s famous shot for the fun of it. “I’m truly honored and blessed to have the opportunity to be able to play against such a great field this week. I can’t explain to you how proud I am to be here, and I’m just really excited to get things rolling.”

Spieth contacted Ghim about playing a practice round, and the youngster was mighty appreciative.

“Jordan was gracious enough to reach out to me and want to practice,” Ghim said. “He didn’t really have much to say about this week; there was a little bit of here and there, like this is where you want to miss it, this is where you want to play it, it’s very scoreable.

“He was just kind of giving me what to expect coming out with no (playing) status and trying to gain status. He was telling me not to put too much pressure on myself. Obviously you aim high and want to go on a run and do really well and earn you PGA Tour card right away. That’s what everyone wants to do, but if it doesn’t happen, as long as you have a good attitude and remember why you play, because we love compete and love playing the game, you’ll get out there sooner or later.”

Ghim’s father, Jeff, caddied for his son throughout his career, but they hired Lance Bennett, who has worked for Berger, Matt Kucher and Bill Haas, to carry for Doug.

“It was a tough one,” Doug said when asked about his father possibly continuing to caddie for him. “Obviously my dad has been there my whole life, but I just wanted to try having a professional caddie. Being out at the Masters and U.S. Open, I got to see kind of what the caddie aspect was like. It’s kind of like a well-oiled machine, and I just figured that having that experience, not having status and never seeing these golf courses before, it was something that I at least needed to try. I know my dad will always be willing to take the call if I ever need him to be on the bag at any point.

“But Lance is great. He’s seen all of these golf courses before. I think he made an unreal 36-major championship streak for a bit, so he’s seen a lot and been around a lot of the guys. I’m just excited to be able to start with a caddie like him at the beginning of my career.”

Ghim said he has plenty of goals – but a main one this week.

“Making the cut in my first pro event and getting my first paycheck would be a good start,” a beaming Ghim said. “But the main thing is just to play in a way that I know how to play. I’m trying to take as much pressure off of me as possible. I’m going to do the best I can to make the most of it.

“But these are the best players in the world, and I have a lot of respect for them. I grew up watching a lot of them, so if I don’t have that kind of success, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a failure. I’m just going to try to gain as much experience at I can, and I think the biggest important thing is getting comfortable as fast as I possibly can. I think if I can do that, my scores will probably be pretty good.”

Bubba Watson, a two-time winner of the Travelers Championship (2010 & 2015), has won twice this year will be a factor on Sunday.

The $7 million tournament runs Thursday through Sunday, and the 156-man starting field includes the four reigning major championship winners: Spieth (British Open), Thomas (PGA Championship), Patrick Reed (Masters) and Brooks Koepka, who on Sunday became the first back-to-back U.S. Open winner since 1984 Greater Hartford Open titlist Curtis Strange, who ironically was a walking reporter with Koepka’s group at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.

Other notable entries include Berger, former No. 1 Jason Day, former Travelers champions Kevin Streelman, Stewart Cink and Fairfield native J.J. Henry, the only Connecticut player to win the event; major champions Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen and 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, who shot a PGA Tour-record, 12-under-par 58 in the final round of the 2016 Travelers; Patrick Cantlay, whose 60 in the second round in 2005 was then a course record and is still the lowest score by an amateur in PGA Tour history; and Tony Finau, who tied fourth in the U.S. Open on Sunday.

The field includes five of the Top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking: Thomas (2), Koepka (4), Spieth (5), McIlroy (7) and Day (9). It also has seven of the Top 10 in FedExCup standings: Thomas (2), Day (4), Bryson DeChambeau (5), Reed (6), Patton Kizzire (8), Webb Simpson (9) and Watson (10). And there are six players with double-digit PGA Tour wins: Furyk (17), McIlroy (14), Johnson (12), Day (12), Spieth (11) and Watson (11).

Not surprisingly, the odds-on favorites on SportsLine are Koepka, Spieth and McIlroy at 12-1. They’re followed by Reed at 16-1, Day and Paul Casey at 18-1, DeChambeau and Simpson at 25-1, Watson and Leishman at 28-1, Berger, Oosthuizen and Ryan Moore at 33-1, Cantlay, Charley Hoffman and Xander Schauffele at 40-1 and Johnson and Brendt Snedeker at 50-1.

SportsLine, built by pro Mike McClure, predicted Reed would win the Masters in April after correctly picking the 2017 Masters (Sergio Garcia), U.S. Open (Koepna) and British Open (Spieth). Moore, who has had five Top-10 finishes in 10 starts in Cromwell, including a tie for second in the 2006 and 2011, is considered a good longshot on which to wager. But they recommend staying clear of Watson even though he won the Genesis Open and World Golf Championships Dell Technologies Match Play Championship and tied for fifth in the Masters this year. But he also has only two other Top-10 finishes in 12 starts and has missed two cuts.

Daniel Berger, coming off a T-6 finish in the U.S. Open last week, arrives at TPC Cromwell with impressive numbers and will be looking for his third career victory.

My longshot picks are Berger and the man with the most unusual name on the Tour. Berger has a 67.13 scoring average at River Highlands the last two years while finishing tied for fifth and second and shared sixth after being tied for the 54-hole lead at Shinnecock Hills last week. Schauffele, who tied for the sixth in the U.S. Open after sharing second in the The Players Championship last month. He also tied for 14th in the Travelers last year after sharing fifth in the U.S. Open.

A year ago, the tournament earned four major awards from the PGA Tour, including Tournament of the Year, and earned $1.72 million from charity, the most since Travelers became title sponsor in 2007.

For more information, visit www.travelerschampionship.com.

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Worked as sports writer for The Hartford Courant for 38 years before retiring in 2008. His major beats at the paper were golf, the Hartford Whalers, University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball, Yale football, United States and World Figure Skating Championships and ski columnist. He has covered every PGA Tour stop in Connecticut since 1971, along with 30 Masters, 25 U.S. Opens, four PGA Championships, 12 Deutsche Bank Championships, 15 Westchester (N.Y.) Classics and four Ryder Cups. He has won several Golf Writers Association of America writing awards, including a first place for a feature on John Daly, and was elected to the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. He also worked for the Connecticut Whale hockey team for two years when they were renamed by former Hartford Whalers managing general partner Howard Baldwin, who had become the marketing director of the Hartford Wolf Pack, the top affiliate of the New York Rangers.

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