CROMWELL, Conn. – For the first time in the tournament’s 66-year history, all four reigning major champions were in the Travelers Championship field.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth (British Open), Brooks Koepka (U.S. Open and Justin Thomas (PGA Championship) will be around for the last two rounds at TPC River Highlands on Saturday and Sunday, but Patrick Reed (Masters) never really got untracked for 36 holes, shooting 1-under-par 139 to miss the cut by one.
Spieth, whose historic 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole beat Daniel Berger last year, had a major roller-coaster ride. After a 63 on Thursday matched his career-best opening round in 2017 and gave him a share of the lead with Zach Johnson, Spieth ran into water woes and looked as if he might even miss the cut.
Spieth hooked his drive on the 13th hole out of bounds and then hit an approach into a pond on the way to a triple-bogey 8. Two holes later, Spieth hooked his drive into the water and made bogey for the second consecutive day. He finished with a 3-over-par 73 for 136, six back of leader Brian Harman.
“It’s a large fairway on 13, but for whatever reason, it just always kills me,” Spieth said. “I hit one out of bounds last year. I hit one in the water last year. I don’t know what it is about the hole, but I get on the tee and for whatever reason I struggle. Today I just hit a bad shot at the wrong time.
“On 15, I unfortunately didn’t stick with game plan, and it cost me two or three shots just on game planning, just on stuff I could control before I hit it. So that’s the frustrating part of today, those execution errors. But the decision ones are what kind of hurt you.”
Spieth was down to the 2-under cutline with four holes to play when he hit a shot on No. 6 that was even more spectacular than the 35-yard bunker shot that he holed for eagle 3 in the first round. How is that possible you say? Well, from 275 yards, Spieth hit a 21-degree hybrid that landed just short of the green, curled to the left and stopped 3 feet from another eagle.
“It was a beautiful drive and beautiful hybrid, and I obviously got a pretty good bounce or break to get the perfect distance to make that (putt) stress-free,” said Spieth, who is trying to join Phil Mickelson (2001-02) as the only repeat winners in tournament history. “But I hit two shots exactly where I was looking.”
Thomas also ran a bit of roller-coaster with four birdies and three bogeys in a 69 for 135 and a tie for 17th. Thomas said he mishit and misread some putts and also got unlucky lies when he hit a 330-yard drive on No. 6 into a divot and drive on No. 9 that stopped in a horrific lie in a bunker.
“It was pretty frustrating,” said Thomas, who is second in the world rankings. “I felt like there wasn’t a very good round this morning. It wasn’t playing very hard. I drove it better (than in an opening 66), but I just did not putt very well. I felt like I easily should have shot 5- or 6-under, and to walk away with 1-under is pretty disappointing.
“It’s not that it’s easy, but you could shoot 60 or 61 in heartbeat if you just got hot one day. You could make up seven or eight shots in a day, so being five back going into the weekend is very strikable.”
Kopeka, coming off a second consecutive U.S. Open win on Sunday, had one of the wildest rounds with five birdies and four bogeys for 69-137 and a tie for 34th at 137. Reid had another eagle 3, at No. 6, but could never completely overcome starting with two bogeys in the first four holes after opening with 72.
Another fan favorite, Rory McIlroy, was more consistent that the major title holders, but two birdies and a bogey left him in a tie for eighth at 133.
“I feel like I left a few out there,” said McIlroy, another formerly No. 1. “I didn’t hit the ball as good as I did yesterday (in a 64), but I still hit it OK. And I felt I had a lot of good putts that just didn’t go in. I started them online, did everything I needed to do, and it’s just one of those days where they were sliding by the edges.
“But over the weekend, if I just keep giving myself chances, hit a few more fairways than I did today, and if I keep doing that and giving myself chances, hopefully I’ll be able to move.”
After an opening 64 left him a shot out of the lead, Harman opened with a bogey on No. 10 in the start of a wacky back nine of three birdies and two more bogeys. A bogey-free, 4-under 31 on the front nine vaulted Harman into the lead by one over Matt Jones (65), Russell Henley (64) and Zach Johnson (68), who was assess a one-stroke penalty for not hitting a putt hanging over the cup on No. 3 in the allotted time.
“When we started this morning, the conditions were very difficult,” Harman said. “It was breezy and it was cool, and it took me a little while to warm up and settle down. I just was a little anxious and just a little uneasy that first few holes, but I settled down and started playing some good golf.”
In the 2015 Travelers, the lefty Harman was two back and tied for second after 36 holes before finishing in a tie for third.
If Jones wins Sunday, he would become the third Australian to win the tournament, joining Greg Norman (1995) and Marc Leishman (2012).
MORE AND MORE PLAUDITS
More and more players are offering more and more platitudes about TPC River Highlands and how much Travelers has done to vastly improve the biggest sporting event in Connecticut. And this after the event received four major awards from the PGA Tour for 2017, including Tournament of the Year and the Players’ Choice Award.
Englishman Paul Casey, a playoff loser to Bubba Watson in 2015, was the latest to laud the tournament, saying, “There are a lot of things that make this a great tournament. But if you look at the facts, it was one of the greatest playoffs on the PGA Tour. The fact that it was (long-hitting) Bubba Watson playing against (short hitter) Corey Pavin means it’s a brilliant golf course because it’s open, and it is. It’s open for anybody to play well around here. It suits all types of games. It’s fun.
”We’ve got a great stretch to finish with, the excitement is usually around 15, 16, 17 where there’s a lot of action. Reachable par-5, drivable par-4, it’s got all the ingredients that you want. And they don’t set it up too silly. They let you make birdies, which is a lot of fun..
”This has always been one of my favorites on Tour. A great golf course that is receptive to all styles of play based on a look at the winners and whether a (Jim) Furyk or the great playoff between Watson and Pavin sums it up. All players have a chance around here. Voted one of the best, maybe the best tournament on Tour by the players. So, yeah, perfect way to follow up a grueling week last week.
“What a stellar field you’ve got with all four reigning major champions here. Mega applause to Brooks (Koepka) as well for coming here after winning last week because it’s very easy to be caught up with other stuff going on. So that speaks volumes for what Travelers has done and how they treat everybody and the work that (Travelers executive vice president and chief administrative officer) Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event. And do things which matter to continue to improve the event, not just for players, but for spectators, fans and hopefully look after you guys (media) as well.”
Casey shot 67 Friday and is tied for fifth at 132.