CROMWELL, Conn. – Two of the five New Englanders to make the cut in the Travelers Championship enjoyed memorable pairings with neighboring major champions in the final round at TPC River Highlands on Sunday.
Fairfield native J.J. Henry, who became the only Connecticut player to win the state’s biggest sporting event in 2005, was paired with fellow Texan and defending champion Jordan Spieth, who called his playing partner “probably my first mentor on the PGA Tour.”
And Madison native Brett Stegmaier, needing several good finishes in his second Tour season to retain his playing privileges, walked alongside fellow Floridian Brooks Koepka, who won his second consecutive U.S. Open a week earlier.
Henry and Spieth each shot 1-under-par 69 to tie for 42nd at 4-under 276, 13 strokes behind Bubba Watson, who rallied from a six-stroke deficit with a 63 for a three-stroke victory over two-time champion Stewart Cink (62), Beau Hossler (66), J.B. Holmes (67) and third-round leader Paul Casey (72), who hit drives into the water at Nos. 13 and 17 to lose his shot at the title. It was Watson’s third tournament win, second in a playoff, and moved him within one title of the tournament-record four of Hall of Famer Billy Casper.
“It has been an amazing run, especially with my health problems (losing 25 pounds) last year,” Watson said after a 71-yard, sand wedge approach to 2 feet at the 18th hole clinched becoming the PGA Tour’s first three-time winner this year and moving to third in the FedEx Cup standings. “It was a weird week starting with a 70 and then shooting 63, and now I’m really motivated to qualify for the Ryder Cup Team the first time.”
Though Henry and Spieth received a rousing ovation as they walked to the 18th green, it paled in comparison to “the earth shook” experience for Spieth a year earlier. First, Spieth got up-and-down from a bunker for par at the final hole of regulation and then sank an historic 61-foot shot from the same bunker on the first playoff hole to beat close friend Daniel Berger. It’s the only time in PGA Tour history that someone holed a bunker shot in a playoff to win.
“We go back a long way,” said Henry, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas. “We had the same agent (Jay Danzi) and stayed together quite a lot when Jordan first came out here. We both hit it pretty good (Sunday) but couldn’t really get anything to happen. And my putting is still holding me back.”
Still, Henry had plenty to be thankful for as his ailing parents again walked at least nine holes with his wife and two boys. Ron Henry, who taught J.J. how to play the game and caddied for him in his tournament debut 20 years ago as an amateur, is battling Parkinson’s, and J.J.’s mother, Nancy, has cancer.
“It’s my 20th anniversary being out here, so it feels great to still have a tee time to play against the best players in the world,” said Henry, who has won three PGA Tour events. “Tee to green, I’m not intimidated by the guys, but I have to do a better job of getting it in the hole.”
Spieth, who will defend his British Open title in four weeks at Carnoustie Golf Club in Scotland, spoke effusively about Henry, who starred on the Connecticut high school scene before becoming an All-American at TCU and then qualifying for the PGA Tour.
“J.J. really kind of took me under when I came out on Tour,” Spieth said. “He was playing behind us a couple groups at the first John Deere Classic that I played and stuck around with me afterwards. He’s been a really, really good friend and somebody that I’ve looked up to, so anytime I get paired with him, it’s a lot of fun.
“And to be paired with him here certainly added to the crowds. They love him. He loves coming back. We talked about the place the whole day. And I know he’s going to continue to stay a couple days here like he normally does seeing his family and friends.”
Spieth also was “amazed” how many people were around the first tee when he and Henry teed off at 9:54 a.m.
“The support was amazing,” Spieth said. “It really was something special considering the leaders weren’t going off until we were finishing. It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind event. There’s a reason the players voted it the players’ favorite event of the year (for 2007).”
But Spieth, who failed to join Phil Mickelson (2001-02) as repeat winners, has mixed reviews about his game after playing six of seven weeks.
“I played a lot of cut-line golf, which is somewhat unusually historically for me fortunately, but kind of a grind,” Spieth said. “But I’ve made a lot of progress where I needed to. My putting is right where it needs to be. It’s getting better every week. It’s the best it’s been for a couple years, and I just kind of get my alignment back in order on the full swing.
“I’ve got a pretty good gauge on where my game is at. I did a pretty job after the first round of standing here and telling you guys that was kind of disguised, right?
But progress was made. I’m not talking myself down by any means. I just know when it feels good and when it feels a little off. Just tee to green was a little off, so I’ve just got to be a little more patient and smarter.”
In the early going, Stegmaier had all of that while generally going toe-to-toe with the long-hitting Koepka after each started at 4-under. Koepka had six birdies in the first 11 holes but was only two ahead Stegmaier. But after each bogeyed No. 12, Stegmaier hit his second shot on the par-5 13th to the back of the green and putted his second shot into the water on the way to a triple-bogey 8. He bogeyed the next two holes and finished with a birdie and two pars for 70-276 and a tie for 42nd, one place better than his previous best finish this year.
“I hit two really good shots and ended up making an 8, which was definitely disappointing,” said Stegmaier, who lives in Tequesta, Fla. “I didn’t hit it that well the three days but made decent scores, then today I felt I hit it really good for the first 11 holes and lost it on the rest of the back nine. It’s really disappointing because I hit bad shots on 14 and 15).”
Still, Stegmaier made a second successive Travelers cut after not playing on the weekend in his first three starts.
“Being from Connecticut, I get way more excited for this week,” Stegmaier said, “so it’s nice with the kind of fan support we get.”
Kopeka also had plenty of support for fulfilling his obligation to the tournament despite being exhausted after his U.S. Open victory at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.
“I felt like today was kind of the first day,” said Kopeka, who shot 65 for 271 and a tie for 19th “I got everything back after actually oversleeping this morning. But I played really well, and it was nice to come out and play an event right after you win. And I like this place. I like this golf course. It really rewards good play. I feel like if you’re on, you can really shoot a low number, but if you just hit it a little bit off, this golf course can be very difficult, and that’s the beauty of this place.”
Kopeka said it was fun to play with someone who lives about 20 minutes away but had been paired with only once previously.
“Brett’s a good guy,” Koepka said. “Obviously we have a little friendly rivalry going to Florida.”
RICHY WERENSKI LEADS NEW ENGLANDERS
Richy Werenski, a native of South Hadley, Mass., finished first among the New England contingent after shooting 67 for 272 and a tie for 26th. Werenski, 26, who grew up next to The Orchards Golf Club and now lives in Jupiter, Fla., had six birdies and three bogeys, with red numbers on Nos. 17 and 18 doing plenty to help his cause in keeping his PGA Tour card and perhaps playing in the FedEx Cup playoffs, which includes the final Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass. Despite missing 12 of 21 cuts, he entered the week 115th in the FedEx Cup standings with 308 points (the top 125 qualify) and 114th in earnings with $693,020.
Keegan Bradley of Woodstock, Vt., shot 70-277 to tie for 47th, and James Driscoll, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., closed with 71 for 279 and a tie for 61st in what could have been his final competitive golf tournament. Driscoll, 40, is considering giving up golf and concentrating on a new clothing line emphasizing protection from the sun. … Travelers announced the tournament raised a record $1.8 million for charity. That was $100,000 more than last year and can be attributed to the event having the strongest field since Travelers became title sponsor in 2007. The next major advancement will be a new 34,000-square-foot clubhouse, with construction scheduled to begin this week and the facility scheduled to be ready for the next tournament on June 20-23, 2019.