CROMWELL, Conn. – The often erudite and entertaining Bryson DeChambeau offered the most prophetic utterance at the Travelers Championship on Saturday.
“I know with it being Saturday and it’s getting close to the end of the tournament, people are going to get a little more nervous,” DeChambeau, an early starter, said after shooting a 6-under-par 64, the second lowest round of the day at wind-swept TPC River Highlands. “There are some tough tee shots, so you never know.”
No, you never know, especially in golf.
After carding a nearly flawless 4-under 31 on the front nine that included a near hole-in-one at No. 8, Zach Sucher, the last man into the tournament on a Korn Ferry Tour exemption, had vaulted to 15 under and five strokes ahead. He was rightfully smiling and enjoying his finest hours on the PGA Tour, especially after badly missing the cut in his first two Travelers Championship starts and being sidelined for 13 months due to ankle and knee injuries after his second appearance in Connecticut’s biggest sporting event in 2017.
Then sadly for Sucher, several unfortunate breaks, helped produce one of the biggest implosions/turnarounds in tournament – even pro golf – history. Sucher went bogey-double bogey-double bogey on Nos. 10-12, including three bunker shots, and suddenly he was chasing the red-hot Chez Reavie and Vermont native Keegan Bradley.
Reavie resembled Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan all rolled into one on the back nine, making seven birdies in a record-tying 28 for 63, the low round of the day, and a stunning six-stroke lead over Sucher and Bradley.
By the end of one of golf’s most bizarre days, Reavie, whose only PGA Tour victory was in the 2008 RBC Canadian Open, had gone from six back to six ahead in nine holes.
“It’s definitely shocking, especially since Zach was playing great,” said Reavie, 37, who capped his memorable day with birdie putts of 10 and 6 feet on the final two holes to set a personal low for nine holes and 18 holes on the PGA Tour. “Zach got some bad breaks early (on the back nine), and I was able to keep plugging along and make a few putts and the rest is history.”
Yes, history indeed. Reavie said he “caught fire” after starting to get a feel for the wind on the ninth and 10th holes that helped him get more scorable clubs in his hands and hit approach shots closer to the hole.
“It was nice because I could go ahead and hit it full,” Reavie said.
Reavie said new coach Mark Blackburn has been a major help to his improved play in recent years, so he feels he’ll be comfortable when he tees up Sunday in search of that elusive second PGA Tour title. He’ll go off at 2 p.m. with Bradley.
“Tomorrow I’ll be nervous, just as I was nervous today and nervous last week,” Reavie said. “I think I’ve been in the heat a lot more the last few years, so I kind of know how to deal with my nerves a little bit better.
“I’m going to come out and stick to the game plan I’ve had all week: hit as many fairways as I can, get good numbers and scorable clubs in my hands and try to make birdies. If I go out and shoot 5 or 6 under, someone is going to have to play a hell of a round to beat me.”
No one has ever shot lower on TPC River Highlands’ risk/reward back nine than Reavie, who tied for third in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California last Sunday. The only others to shoot 28 on the back nine since the tournament moved from Wethersfield Country Club in 1984 were Vijay Singh in the fourth round in 1998, Charley Hoffman in the first round in 2013 and Kevin Streelman in 2014, when he set a PGA Tour record with seven consecutive birdies to close out a victory.
Reavie also bettered the tournament’s 54-hole lead record previously shared by Hall of Famer Sam Snead (1955), Bob Murphy (1970), Tim Norris (1982) and Paul Casey (2018), who was the only player not to win. And the Arizona State University grad who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., bettered his previous low score in the third round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open by a shot.
And Reavie should better his best finish in eight previous Travelers appearances, a tie for fifth in 2017, the only time he was in the Top 10.
Sucher, who began the day with a two-stroke lead, birdied three of the first four holes and then hit his tee shot to 2 feet at the par-3 eighth to forge his sizeable advantage. But a drive into the trees led to a bogey at No. 10 and then his tee shot on the par-3 11th plugged in a bunker. He couldn’t escape the sand with his first try, hit his second to 28 feet and two-putted for double bogey.
The four-shot swing in two holes suddenly narrowed Sucher’s lead to one over Bradley, who birdied No. 11 to get to 11 under. Reavie got a piece of the top spot when he made birdie putts of 24 and 11 feet at the 10th and 11th holes and then took the lead at 12 under with a 3-footer for birdie at the 12th. That came as Sucher hit into a fairway bunker and dumped his third shot into another bunker on the way to a second consecutive double bogey.
Amazingly in three holes and less than an hour, Sucher had gone from five strokes ahead to two behind Reavie and one back of Bradley. After needing only 31 shots on the front nine, Sucher had 16 on the first three holes on the back.
And it got worse for Sucher. Reavie got up-and-down from a greenside bunker for his fourth consecutive birdie at the 13th hole to move two ahead of Bradley and three in front of Sucher. The stunning scoreboard changes continued as Reavie made a 6-foot putt at No. 15 for his fifth birdie in six holes after Bradley hit his drive into the water and had to make a 13-foot putt to salvage a bogey. The latest two-shot swing gave Reavie a four-shot lead over Bradley and Sucher.
The two late birdies would seem to have given Reavie a seemingly safe lead entering the final round until you reflect on what transpired Saturday.
“The front nine was a lot of fun, back nine wasn’t much,” an understated Sucher said after his roller-coaster 71. “I don’t feel like I did that much wrong on the back. The doubles on 11 and 12 weren’t far off from being pretty good shots. To be honest, I thought 12 would have carried the bunker (on his third shot). But other than that, I felt like I hit it pretty well and rolled it kind of where I wanted to all day. Nothing went in on the back nine, but I was hitting good shots.
“I was happy to rebound a little bit and stop the bleeding. Other than 10, 11 and 12, it was a great day. I wasn’t watching as much what Chez was doing on Saturday. It was more about me trying to get in with a good score. I think he picked it up and birdied all three, so that’s a lot. I was kind of happy we had a break on 13. Got to calm down a little bit after being rattled for a few holes. But this back nine is like that, and I have to remember that tomorrow. The biggest thing is get that driver in play, and the course is pretty easy. I still have faith for tomorrow.”
Bradley had a ho-hum 69 but was delighted that he finished with some clutch putts, including a 12-footer for bogey at No. 15 after hitting his drive into the water and a curling 10-footer for par at No. 18.
“Those are the putts that keep the momentum going, whether they’re for par, bogey, whatever,” said Bradley, who had two of his three birdies on the first three holes and also made two bogeys. “It was real easy early on, and then I started to miss a few greens (in regulation). I leaned on the putter and made a bunch of really good par saves and one bogey save. That’s a good sign going into tomorrow for sure.
“But it’s going to take a low one and some help from Chez. You can make up a lot of ground here, but there are also double bogeys around every corner on the back. I wasn’t paying much attention to the board only because it was Saturday. But a lot can happen on this course for sure.”
Roberto Diaz birdied Nos. 13-15 on the way to 67 and a tie for fourth with Jason Day (68). Bryson DeChambeau had a bogey-free 64 that enabled him to vault from barely making the 36-hole cut at 138 into a tie for sixth with Kevin Tway (66), Tommy Fleetwood (67) and Martin Laird (68).
Patrick Cantlay, who shot 60 in the second round in 2011 that’s still the low score for an amateur in a PGA Tour event, headed a 10-way tie for 10th that also included Streelman (69).
Defending champion Bubba Watson will have to wait for another year to try to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper’s tournament record for wins (four). He shot 73 for 208 and a tie for 51st. A weary Brooks Koepka, No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, had 72 for 209, the second cut because more than 78 players made the 36-hole cut.
DECHAMBEAU CHARGES UP THE CHARTS
The unorthodox swinging DeChambeau got out early at 8:55 a.m. and put together the second-best round after barely making the 2-under 138 cut.
“I’ve just been working a lot on my game with a bunch of different facets,” said DeChambeau, whose 64 gave him a 54-hole total of 202. “I’ve changed the putter, changed shafts in the irons. I’ve changed driver shafts, driver heads, 3-wood heads. I’ve changed literally almost everything in my game from last year.
“People would call me crazy, but that’s just the way I am. I want to get better in every facet. To me, I’ve only played well in dry conditions. I know I’ve said that before. Trying to figure out how to play better in wet conditions is a difficulty of mine. Today it was a little bit drier out there, and I was able to control some things a lot better and didn’t make many mistakes.”
After carding 68 and 70 in soggy conditions, DeChambeau hit his irons so well that his six birdies ranged from only 14 inches to 10 feet and hit the two par-5 holes in two shots.
DeChambeau, whose five PGA Tour wins include the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October, started his run with a 10-foot birdie putt at No. 2 and then hit his tee shot on the 237-yard par-3 fifth hole to 14 inches. He two-putted the par-5 sixth and 13th holes from 30 and 52 feet and needed to make putts from only 4 and 5 feet at Nos. 15 and 18 to finish his stellar day.
A WEARY KOEPKA
With popular former champions Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth having missed the cut, Koepka and Watson were the biggest draws among the 82 players who made the 2-under 138 cut.
Koepka, who won a second consecutive PGA Championship in May and finished second to Gary Woodland last Sunday in his quest for a third straight U.S. Open title, had good intentions Saturday but bad results on a course that he likes thanks largely to fatigue.
“It’s just not there,” Koepka said after a 2-over 72 for 209 and a tie for 67th that barely allowed him to play the final round. “I’m dead. I’m fried. My body is starting to ache, too. It’s a combo. It’s hard to focus. I don’t think I’m over the PGA. And then to exert all your energy last week, just fried. I’ve caught myself yawning on the golf course. I don’t think I’ve ever yawned on a golf course before.”
Koepka is 29 but must have felt twice that age as his emotionally draining life the past month probably had him wishing he missed the second cut Saturday.
“I don’t know it was the early starting time (9:25 a.m.),” Koepka said. “I’m still doing my thing. I’m still going to the gym every day. I think today might be a day off. Everything is aching. I feel like an old man today.”
On the positive side, Koepka’s weariness stems from playing so well in so many major championships the past two years.
“I’m mentally drained after playing in a major,” said Koepka, who has won four times and finished second twice in his past nine major championships. “It happens to everybody. If you’re in contention, you’re going to be drained. If you’re not in contention, it’s a lot easier.”
A second-round 66 enabled Koepka to make the cut by a shot, and a bad start Saturday ended any longshot hopes of victory. He bogeyed three of the first five holes, made a double-bogey 7 when he hit his second shot into the water at No. 13 and fittingly three-putted the 18th hole from 51 feet for a closing bogey.
“Last year winning (the U.S. Open) and then coming here, we knew it was a grind,” Koepka said. “This year was probably more of a mental grind. But I committed to the event, so no point backing out. I like this tournament. It’s a fun event to play. It’s just hard to judge weeks in advance how you’re going to play.”
Didn’t sound as if he would be the first player to commit next January as he was this year.
THREE NEW PROS HAVE VARYING SUCCESS
Former Oklahoma State teammates Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff and Norwegian Viktor Hovland had varying success after being three of the four top-ranked amateurs in the country to receive sponsors’ exemptions from the Travelers.
Hovland, playing in the first twosome off at 7:15 a.m. after just making the 2-under 138, was 4 under after 16 before a double-bogey 6 at No. 17 and par at the 18th gave him 68 for 206 and a tie for 34th.
Morikawa, a four-time All-American at the University of California who was tied for sixth after making his third consecutive cut as a pro, struggled to a 75 that included a wet double-bogey 7 at No. 13 but ended with a 12-foot birdie putt for 208 and a tie for 51st.
Wolff, who made his first cut in his second PGA Tour start, shot 74 for 212 and didn’t survive the second cut. Justin Suh, who led the University of Southern California to the national championship in May, missed the 36-hole cut by eight strokes after shooting a pair of 73s. He also missed the cut in his pro debut in the Memorial Tournament three weeks ago. … Jason Kokrak’s PGA Tour-high string of 23 consecutive cuts made came to an end when he shot 9-over 149 for 36 holes. Tommy Fleetwood shot 135 to make his 23rd consecutive cut and joined Hideki Matsuyama, who is not in the Travelers Championship, as a co-leader in the category with 23. Fleetwood shot 67 Saturday and is tied for sixth at 202. … The only New Englander besides Bradley to make the cut was Richy Werenski, who had 72 for 208.
FIRST TEE CELEBRATES 20TH
The First Tee of Connecticut celebrated its 20th anniversary during its annual patron’s breakfast in the David and Geri Epstein Center, named for the two national trustees who donated millions of dollars for the centerpiece of the local organization.
TFTCT has grown from 100 youngsters in The First Tee of Hartford at Goodwin Park Golf Course to more than 70,000 kids at 20 sites and in 160 schools statewide. The center is adjacent the state-of-the-art practice facility and four-hole Karl Krapuk course that makes TFTCT one of only two complexes in the country to have all three entities in the same location. A new feature unveiled was a plaque to be displayed in the center recognizing individuals who have donated memorial gifts through the years.
“The breakfast is our most exciting event of the year because it’s a thank you to all of our friends and supporters and when we give out our scholarships, which is one of our major and most enjoyable activities,” TFTCT executive director Mark Moriarty said. “We’re also thankful to the tournament and (director) Nathan Grube for allowing us to hold the breakfast on the grounds and for giving each person who attends a ticket and parking pass for the day.”
Thirty youngsters received $37,000 in eight scholarship categories, and one of them was Sadie Martinez of Hartford. Sadie and her older brother, Dan, are the only youngsters to be part of the program since Day 1. Sadie, who attended the breakfast, has been involved in countless First Tee activities and is now studying for his masters’ degree in Special Education after graduating from Cumberland College in Princeton, Ky. She also attended St. Augustine’s and St. Brigid’s elementary schools in Hartford and then Northwest Catholic High School in West Hartford. Dan also attended Northwest Catholic and now works for ESPN Desportes in New York City.
“Dan actually got us involved after he saw a flyer talking about The First Tee,” Sadie said. “I got involved when I was in fifth grade, and now I’m taking to become a masters’ student. The First Tee has sure meant a lot to me.”
Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun was the guest speaker and offered numerous connections between basketball and the nine core values of TFTCT during an entertaining and informative 30-minute speech. Calhoun is the former legendary University of Connecticut basketball coach who started a new program at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford last year and is an honorary member of TFTC’s board of directors.
“The First Tee is an amazing, amazing thing because it makes a difference,” said Calhoun, 77, who played in his 29th Celebrity Pro-Am on Wednesday. “You are taking and molding people and giving them an opportunity to make lives better and push each other to be as good as they can be every day. Their nine core values are terrific, and the key in life is to ‘win the day’ and have someone have your back and vice versa.
“When I was young, I always remember someone telling me that no man stands taller than when he stoops to help a child. That’s exactly what The First Tee of Connecticut does, and I’m proud and honored to be a part of it.”
TFTCT’s 20th Anniversary Charity Classic is July 22 at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich. The best-ball-of-four tournament has a 12:30 p.m. shotgun start, followed by a dinner reception, open bar and silent auction. The event honors Everett Fisher, a Round Tree member and a TFTCT trustee from its inception until his death. Entry fee is $1,000 for individuals, and dinner only is $150. Sponsorships range from $350 (tee) to $30,000 (title).