CROMWELL, Conn. – Fairfield native J.J. Henry officially came full circle on Monday.
Twenty-one years ago, Henry’s father, Ron, caddied for J.J. in his PGA Tour debut as an amateur on a sponsors’ exemption in the then Canon Greater Hartford Open at TPC River Highlands. J.J. shot 2-under-par 278 to tie for 56th place, but more important were the lasting memory of his dad walking alongside for 72 holes.
On Monday June 17, Henry was one of 28 PGA Tour players competing in the Aetna Tournament Players Pro-Am, and the only Connecticut native to win the tournament when it was Buick Championship in 2006 had his oldest son, Connor, carrying his bag. Connor, 14, also will do the duties in the Celebrity Pro-Am on Wednesday (they have a 1 p.m. starting time off the first tee) and should again be wearing a TCU shirt. TCU is where his dad was a first-team All-American and Co-Player of the Year in 1998, which was also the same year that J.J. won his third Connecticut State Golf Association Amateur Championship and was awarded the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance Bill Lee Award given to the state’s Male Athlete of the Year.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to play today, but it’s pretty cool and a lot of fun for Connor to be out here,” a smiling J.J. said between shots on the practice range. “Things really have come full circle, and it sure puts things in perspective.”
Connor, who first worked for dad in the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, where the family now lives, usually shoots in the high 70s or low 80s and also plays basketball, baseball and tennis.
“I like golf the most because I’m best at it,” Connor said while watching dad warmup on TPC River Highlands’ expansive practice facility.
Connor doesn’t remember anything about dad winning the Buick Championship, but that’s understandable considering he was only 2 years old at the time.
This is J.J.’s 21st year as a pro, the first two on the Web.com Tour, where he won once in Knoxville, Tenn. It has been one of J.J.’s most difficult seasons as he has missed 10 of 15 cuts and earned only $164,212. And this after he finished 158th in the FedExCup standings last year and became the first player to take advantage of a one-time PGA Tour exception for those who have made at least 300 cuts, which is six priority positions higher than the past champions category.
“I feel good, but I just haven’t put it together,” said Henry, 44, who also won the 2012 Reno-Tahoe Open and 2015 Barracuda Championship. “I know what to do, but it gets harder as you get older.”
J.J., Ron, Connor and his younger son Carson, 10, plan to play Tuesday at The Patterson Club in Fairfield, where J.J. learned to play golf from his father, an accomplished player who competed in several British Amateur Championships.
And speaking of accomplished players, Henry has played some with No. 1 ranked Brooks Koepka, who has won four of his last nine major championship starts and finished second to Gary Woodland in the U.S. Open on Sunday at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California.
“I played with Brooks in the Travelers two years ago before he went on his run,” said Henry, who tied for 42nd last year at 276, five higher than Koepka. “I’ve also been paired with him because we’re both in the winners’ category. He has improved so much because of his demeanor and mentality. Nothing fazes him, so it’s hard to tell if he has played good or played bad. And he’s really competitive, and he takes that to the course.”
When not playing golf or attending to his two sons, Henry and his wife, Lee, are involved in the Henry House Foundation, a non-profit organization that they founded in 2006 with a mission to generate public awareness and to support community-based programs that focus on the healthcare and well-being of children in the community. The foundation makes donations to specific, tangible projects initiated by children’s medical and support services and organizations in Fort Worth and Southern New England. Henry is also an honorary member of the board of directors of The First Tee of Connecticut, which is located adjacent to the practice facility. The Foundation’s website is www.henryhousefoundation.com.
BROOKS KOEPKA HAS NO REGRETS
Brooks Koepka finished second Sunday in his quest to become the first player to win the U.S. Open three years in a row since Willie Anderson in 1903-05. That gave Koepka a Tiger Woods-like run of first in the 2018 PGA Championship, a tie for second in the Masters in April, a victory in the 2019 PGA Championship in May and now another runner-up finish. The streak came after he returned from a serious wrist injury that forced him to miss nearly four months, including the 2018 Masters.
Koepka is the first top-ranked player entering the Travelers Championship since Greg Norman in 1996, when the defending champion was disqualified for unknowingly using an illegal ball that hadn’t approved by the U.S. Golf Association. David Duval was twice No. 1 in 1999 and played the Travelers (then called the Canon GHO), but he was not No. 1 the week of the tournament.
Koepka was also the earliest player to commit to the Travelers, in mid-January — five months before the event, not a common practice among PGA Tour players. Before the start of the U.S. Open on Thursday, Koepka said no matter how he finished, he would keep his commitment to be at TPC River Highlands, his fourth time playing the tournament.
“I mean, I usually take the week off after a major, except next week I’ll be playing Travelers,” Koepka said. “It’s a golf course I like. It’s just something I’ve usually done. If I win this week, I’m still going to the Travelers. I did that last year. It’s one of those things where I enjoy taking some time off to kind of I guess soak it in a little bit, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must for me.”
Koepka said he had no regrets about finishing three strokes behind Gary Woodland, a close friend who won his first major championship and shares the same agent. Woodland’s 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole give him a closing 2-under 69 for a 72-hole total of 13-under 271, which beat Tiger Woods’ record for the six U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach of 12-under set when he won the tournament by a record 15 strokes in 2000.
“I played great,” said Koepka, who has won four of his last nine major championship starts. “Nothing I could do. Gary played a great four days. That’s what you’ve got to do if you want to win a U.S. Open, win a major championship and hats off to him. Cool way to go out on 18, to make that bomb (30-foot birdie putt). He deserves it, he’s worked hard and I’m happy for him. … It doesn’t sting. I gave it my all. I give it my all every time and sometimes, like this week – it happened at Augusta – it’s not meant to be. I played great. I hit every shot that I wanted to. And sometimes no matter how good your good is it isn’t there.”
Woodland was joined at the ceremony presentation on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links by Norwegian Viktor Hovland, one of four leading amateurs to receive a sponsors exemption to the Travelers Championship, where he will make this pro debut. Hovland, 21, won the 2018 U.S. Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach and also was the low amateur in the Masters in April when he shot 3-under 285 to tie for 32nd. He became the first player since Matt Kuchar in 1998 to earn low amateur honors in the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year. Hovland rose to No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking after his low-amateur finish in the Masters.
Sunday, Hovland made a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole for a closing 67 for 280, which tied for 12th place. That broke Jack Nicklaus’ record for low score by an amateur in the U.S. Open of 282 in 1962 at Cherry Hills CC in Englewood, Colo.
“That was fun,” said Hovland, a native of Oslo, Norway. “I hit a lot of greens and hit a lot of fairways this week. Got off to a great start on the first round but wasn’t quite able to capitalize on it. I had another great start (Sunday), and it was nice to finish with a birdie and shoot 4-under at a course that I really like.”
Hovland said breaking the record of Nicklaus, whose record 18 major titles include four U.S. Opens, was “obviously cool to perform such a thing.”
“I hope that this will feed or I can feed off of this going into my professional career and do more things like this and be in contention of winning tournaments,” Hovland said.
Hovland especially enjoyed walking up the 18th hole Sunday alongside his caddie, Donnie Darr, the assistant coach at Oklahoma State who also carried for him when he won the U.S. Amateur and at the Masters.
“I’ve had the three best years of my life at Oklahoma State,” said Hovland, “and I’ve learned so much not only as a player but as a person, got to meet so many cool people and just kind of gotten to learn about the culture around it. It’s been really cool, though, just to have him, and Coach Darr and just all the guys on the team with me, supporting me. So that was a cool walk.”
Hovland, a junior at OSU, will make his pro debut with Cowboys sophomore teammate Matthew Wolff, ranked fourth in the world. It’s the start of four consecutive weeks of PGA Tour golf for the Norwegian, who was part of the 2018 national championship team.
“You couldn’t ask for a better jump-start into professional golf,” OSU head coach Alan Bratton said. “To come off of a confidence boost like this is awesome.”
Hovland and Wolff will be joined by fellow amateurs Justin Suh, ranked second, and No. 3 Colin Morikawa, who both recently turned pro. Suh led USC to the 2019 NCAA title and is a two-time All-American. Morikawa is a four-time All-American who played at California and is the Pac-12 Player of the Year. He won the NCAA individual title and was named the Jack Nicklaus national player of the year.
“Giving some of the best young players in golf an opportunity to play in our event has helped us build a relationship with them as they wrap up their amateur careers and turn pro,” tournament director Nathan Grube said.
The tournament has long been known for giving sponsors’ exemptions to leading amateurs, including Duval, two-time champion Stewart Cink, 2007 winner Hunter Mahan, Justin Leonard, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Charles Howell III, Patrick Rodgers and Patrick Cantlay, who rallied to win the Memorial Tournament three weeks ago and shot a 10-under 60 as a 19-year-old in the 2011 Travelers Championship, the lowest 18-hole score by an amateur in PGA Tour history. Thomas, Mahan, DeChambeau and Cantlay are playing in the tournament this week.
FEATURED PAIRINGS ANNOUNCED
Pairings for the first two rounds won’t be announced until noon on Tuesday, but the PGA Tour released the four featured groupings on Monday. To watch the featured pairings on Thursday and Friday, fans in the United States can tune into the Golf Channel telecast (3-6 p.m. EDT) and stream PGA TOUR LIVE via subscription on NBC Sports Gold (www.nbcsports.com/pgatour) and Amazon Prime Video Channels (amazon.com/video/pgatourlive).
The featured groupings are Koepka-Bubba Watson-Tony Finau, Phil Mickelson-Jordan Spieth-Marc Leishman, Paul Casey-Jason Day-DeChambeau and Cantlay-Thomas-Francesco Molinari.
FINAL FOUR IN THE FIELD
The 156-man field was filled Monday in the Open qualifier at Ellington Ridge Country Club. Ryan McCormick, a St. John’s University grad from Middletown, N.J., shot a bogey-free, 6-under 66 to grab medalist honors and earn his PGA Tour debut. McCormick, who shot 67 to tie for first in the first of two pre-qualifiers on Wednesday, finished one stroke ahead of nine players, who had a playoff for the other three spots. It was the first time in four tries that McCormick made the tournament after getting through pre-qualifying.
Reaching the major leagues of golf is special for the son of a club pro, Mark McCormick, at Suburban Golf Club in Union, N.J. But the younger McCormick actually learned the game from Pete Dachisen, who lived across the street and had a net behind his house, and now works with Bernie Najai in Owen Mills, Md. While at St. John’s, McCormick became friends with the University of Connecticut’s Brian Hughes and Zach Zaback, who won the 2014 and 2016 Connecticut State Amateur and 2016 Palmer Cup and is now playing on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada. Hughes advanced when he shot 70 on Wednesday, but Zaback failed after a 73 in the second round of qualifying on Thursday that was played in chilly, rainy conditions. But Hughes failed to qualify when he shot 72.
The other three to advance to the $7.2 million tournament were Michael Miller (Brewster, N.Y.), Jim Renner (Orlando, Fla.) and Chip McDaniel (Manchester, Ky.), all of whom parred the third playoff hole to earn their spots. Renner is a native of Attleboro, Mass., who has won the Massachusetts Open, Vermont Open, Rhode Island Open and Maine Open while playing on the PGA Tour, Web.com Tour and NGA Hooters Tour. McDaniel, a University of Kentucky grad who has won nearly $160,000 in five PGA Tour starts this this year, shot 13-over 297 to finish 78th in the U.S. Open and still managed to travel 3,000 miles to get to the Open qualifier.
Zack Sucher and Chris Thompson also received sponsors’ exemptions off the Web.com Tour.
TICKET, CORPORATE SALES INCREASED
Grube said advance ticket sales and corporate sales have both increased from last year. Ticket sales are up about 10-15 percent, while corporate sales have increased by an undetermined amount until everything has been tabulated.
Some of the increases can be attributed to many of the tournament’s marquee players committing early, starting with Koepka in January.
“To have people starting to talk golf in February is terrific,” Grube said.
FedEx, a major sponsor on the PGA Tour, is a new partner on Corporate Row. There also are more skyboxes at the 17th hole, where the new Mohegan Sun Club is located to the left of the fairway. The Outpost to the right of the 18th hole has been moved to provide better viewing, and the new Event Lawn near the new $20 million clubhouse is sold out, along with the Mohegan Sun facility.
Daily and group tickets can be purchased at www.travelerschampionship.com.
GENE LITTLER, HUBERT GREEN HONORED
Gene Littler, the 1959 Insurance City Open champion, and Hubert Green, the 1981 GHO winner, were the 12th and 13th deceased past champions added to the Jay S. Fishman Memorial Garden located near the driving range. A plaque in the garden honors Fishman, the former Travelers executive chairman and chief executive officer who died from ALS on Aug. 19, 2016, 12 days after the tournament, which Russell Knox won when he made a 12-foot par putt on the final hole to beat University of Hartford grad Jerry Kelley by a stroke.
The memorial garden, dedicated on June 19, 2017, has plaques honoring deceased past champions on either side. The inscriptions on both read: “Jay S. Fishman Memorial Garden Honoring The Lives Of Our Tournament’s Past Champions.” The deceased past champions previously acknowledged were Ted Kroll (1952, the first year of the tournament), Tommy Bolt (1954), Sam Snead (1955), Arnold Palmer (1956, 1960), Gardner Dickinson (1957), Billy Casper (1963, 1965, 1968, 1973), Ken Venturi (1964), Art Wall Jr. (1966), Charley Sifford (1967), George Archer (1971) and Rod Funseth (1978).
During the dedication of the garden, Travelers CEO Alan Schnitzer said one of Fishman’s credos was: “It’s a hometown company, throwing a hometown event for hometown causes. And it doesn’t get any better than that, except it did get better than that.”