CROMWELL, Conn. – It appeared as if it might be déjà vu all over again Sunday in the Travelers Championship.
On Saturday, Zach Sucher had a six-stroke lead at the turn and then imploded with a bogey-double bogey-double bogey start to the back nine as playing partner Chez Reavie made three consecutive birdies for an eight-shot swing that propelled him to six ahead entering the final round at TPC River Highlands.
Reavie didn’t have any implosions Sunday, but Vermont native Keegan Bradley applied plenty of pressure down the stretch. While Reavie was making one birdie and one bogey in the first 15 holes, Bradley was rattling off six birdies to easily offset one bogey. When Bradley holed a 71/2-foot birdie putt at No. 15 to get within a shot of the lead, he pumped his fist and looked toward a boisterous partisan crowd where dozens of family and friends were rooting, some too vociferously, causing him to ask for some civility.
“Some fans said they loved me, but they loved Keegan more,” Reavie said later. “The people, except for one or two knuckleheads, were having fun, but I don’t think they necessarily understand how important it is to us. Keegan was great. He told them to stop it and back down when I was trying to putt. It wasn’t malicious by any means. It was Sunday and just another test I had to go through.”
Reavie said the back nine was a challenge, for sure, but he focused on one shot at a time.
“I still played aggressive, even though I had the six-shot lead,” he said. “I didn’t shy away from flags and hit the same shots I did all week. Unfortunately, I didn’t make any putts until the end.”
Bradley then hit his tee shot over the green on the par-3 16th hole but made a brilliant chip to 2 feet to save par as Reavie missed his fifth very makeable birdie putt on the day.
But the suspense suddenly ended at the water-lined 17th hole, which Reavie called the most visibly difficult on the course. He hit a perfect drive, knocked his approach to 14 feet and made the putt for his second birdie while Bradley drove into a fairway bunker, skulled his 9-iron second shot over the green and then three-putted from 18 feet for a double-bogey 6.
A routine par at the 18th gave Reavie a 2-under 69 for a 72-hole total of 17-under 263 and a four-stroke victory over Bradley and Sucher, whose 5-under 30 on the back nine was 10 strokes better than Saturday.
“This means everything,” said Reavie, who had only three bogeys in the tournament. “I knew Keegan was going to come out firing and ready to go. I’ve played a lot golf with him, and he’s a fantastic player. I just was fortunate enough to stay patient and make that big putt on 17 to give myself a little cushion on 18.”
Reavie, 37, said a tie for third in the U.S. Open last week went a long way to his first victory in 250 starts and 3,983 days since he won his only other PGA Tour title in the 2008 RBC Canadian Open in his rookie season.
“Being in the second-to-last group the last day of the U.S. Open definitely gave me a lot of confidence coming into this week, and particularly today,” said Reavie, who had never finished better than a tie for 11th (2012) in eight previous tournament appearances. “I played really well on Sunday at the U.S. Open, and I tried to treat this week the same as I did then.”
The 11-year victory drought was littered with numerous knee and wrist injuries, the worst that forced him to have surgery on left wrist on Jan. 14, 2014 and to wear three different length casts before being able to start rehabilitation that prevented him from returning to golf for nearly a year.
“That was the low point,” Reavie said. “The doctor said the surgery went great, but there was a 50/50 shot whether it was going to work, and there was no guarantee that I wasn’t going to go make one full swing when he allowed me to and it wasn’t going to happen again. So those were probably the darkest days. Just the unknown and sitting at home not being able to do anything and your mind wandering. OK, if it didn’t work, I can’t play golf, what am I going to do?
“So I had some long years, but it was great because it gave me perseverance and good perspective of what life is and what golf is. I enjoy every minute of every week I’m out here now, and I don’t think I would necessarily be that way if I didn’t go through those tough times. It was a long process, but one I stayed diligent at and did exactly what the doctors told me to do.”
Reavie’s wife, Amanda, said keeping busy and a month’s vacation in Europe helped her husband survive those darkest days.
“He had a really good attitude,” Amanda said after listening to her husband’s victory press conference. “We kept busy doing something all the time, and he even got into Xbox. The wrist problems were much worse than his ACL reconstruction. At least he could get up and walk, but the doctors wouldn’t even let him ride a stationary bike during his wrist rehab.”
But all that seemed forgotten after Reavie’s improbable rally on the back nine Saturday. He played plenty steady Sunday, and only the handful of reasonable birdie putts that failed to drop made it difficult for him.
Working with coach Mark Blackburn helped make a major difference.
“I went through the wrist injury and sat down with him and picked his brain on what he thought I should do,” Reavie recalled. “We pretty much tried to change my swing to swallow it out to get rid of the flip at the bottom just to mainly take pressure off my left wrist. What that did is just helped build some consistency in my swing.
“I learned how to match my path to club face. So before I would come in the face would be a little open and I would slam it and get real steep at the bottom, which would pretty much cause my left wrist to blow up. We tried to square it earlier in the downswing and then just rotate and keep it nice and shallow.”
That may seem complicated to the layman, but it made Reavie a much more consistent and better player.
Bradley, whose four PGA Tour victories include the 2011 PGA Championship in his first major event, was a pedestrian 1-under 34 on the front nine but began his charge with birdie putts of 11 and 14 feet on the 10th and 11th holes. A 9-foot birdie putt at No. 13 got him within three, and he made it two down with a 7-footer for birdie at the 15th.
But all good things came to an end at the fateful 17th hole, where many winning tournament hopes have been dashed through the years. Bradley was trying to put together the second biggest come-from-behind victory to the seven-stroke rally by Rhode Island native Bradley Faxon. Bubba Watson rallied from six back in 2010 and 2015.
“I was just having so much fun,” Bradley said. “The crowds, man, that was so great. It felt like a Ryder Cup for me because they were so loud. You just dream of that as a kid. It was just incredible. I was having the time of my life.”
And the 17th hole?
“I hit a good drive and it just bounced into the bunker,” Bradley said. “It was such a tough (second) shot (over water), but I hit a brutal shot and got it thin. I ran my first putt four feet by, which was tough. I wish I could have that back, but I’m proud of the way I played. I knew Chez was just going to be on the fairway, on the green. He was playing great, so I knew he was going to be really tough to beat, and he was.
“But the week was a dream come true. I got to play in front of the fans of New England and put on a show. I’ve never felt that type of support ever. Maybe in a Ryder Cup. I imagined this as a kid coming to the Greater Hartford Open, now the Travelers Championship, when I was 10 years old. I was out there living it. The fans were on my side, and it was so fun. I’m speechless. To come to this tournament every year of putting myself in this position and having this chance on the back side lived up to the hype. It was awesome.”
But Bradley gave plenty of plaudits to his playing partner, who moved to 13th in the Presidents Cup race (the top eight automatically qualify for captain Tiger Woods’ team) and 24th in the FedExCup points standings.
“After I made the putt on 11, I was thinking I had a real good shot at winning because of how difficult the shots are coming in for a guy with a lead,” Bradley said. “I kept the pressure on him the whole day, but all the credit to him. He played so well, and I knew he would. He’s one of the best players out here and has been for a long time. Not a lot of the public knows it, but he’s a great player.”
A lot of folks felt plenty good for Sucher, the last player in the tournament via a Korn Ford Tour sponsors’ exemption from Travelers. Sucher put his disastrous meltdown Saturday mostly out of his mind except for a four-putt for double-bogey 6 at No. 9 that gave him a 1-over 37 on that side. But he made five birdies on the back side for 67 and his best finish on the PGA Tour that was worth $633,600, doubling his career earnings and moving himself within striking distance of getting a PGA Tour card off a major medical exemption.
“Honestly, the four-putt was great,” Sucher said. “It got me going. I was rattled enough maybe to get over it. I didn’t feel like I was putting too well before then. I felt like I had some good putts that didn’t go in but also had some pushes on holes early. I putted awesome after No. 9.”
Sucher, sidelined for two years with a variety of injuries after the 2017 Travelers Championship, capped the most memorable week of his golfing life when he holed an 18-foot chip from the rough on the 18th hole, eliciting a roar from the crowd that filled the amphitheater setting.
“Oh, man, that was pretty cool,” beamed Sucher, who couldn’t touch a club for 13 months following knee surgery. “The first chip was awful, but that’s way better than a regular up-and-down. The back nine was exciting. I hung in there, which is great.”
So, too, was a third-place finish in a PGA Tour event for a struggling Korn Ford Tour member.
“I’m not sure what all this does points-wise for next year,” Sucher said. “But I know that two months ago we had credit card debt, so I know we don’t have that anymore.”
Talk about changing someone’s life, especially with his family looking on.
“I wasn’t sure how I would handle it this weekend,” said Sucher, making only his fourth PGA Tour start. “I haven’t been in a situation like that out here. Done it on the Korn Ferry Tour a few times, but this is a little different. Crowd-wise everything is about 10 times bigger out here, so to be honest, it was so much fun.
“It was a lot of highs and lows, but I honestly can’t wrap my head around it. First time I’ve been in this situation. Obviously, I would have liked to be winning, but it gives me a huge boost of confidence knowing that I can hang in there. It was amazing. It was life changing.”
Vaughan Taylor finished in amazing fashion, birdying the last five holes to shoot a back-nine 29, one off the record, for 65 and fourth place at 268.
Paul Casey had his fourth top-5 finish in five Travelers Championship appearances thanks to stellar work down the stretch. He drove the 289-yard, par-4 15th and needed only a 6-foot, 9-inch putt to register an eagle 2. He capped another terrific Travelers showing with an 8-foot putt for his third birdie of the day at the 18th hole that more than offset his lone bogey at No. 11 to shoot 65 for 269 and a tie for fifth with Joaquin Niemann (66) and Kevin Tway (67).
Abraham Ancer made the biggest move, carding seven birdies in a 63, the low round of the day, to vault into a tie for eighth at 270 with Brian Harman (66), Jason Day (69), Bryson DeChambeau (68) and Roberto Diaz (69).
But they were also-rans to a champion who had overcome more off the course than on it.
“It was great because I had a great support system: my wife and my family and my trainers and coaches,” said Reavie, who tied for third in the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. “Everyone kind of rallied behind me and picked me up on my down days. Once I got going and started seeing that I can hit golf shots and saw the progress that I was making, I was excited and ready to go.
“Now after finally getting it done, you feel like you can win. I’ve played well down the stretch. In Phoenix (in 2018), I birdied the last hole to force a playoff and lost (to U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland) and finished second the week after that (at AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am). I’ve been close, but it’s just not the same as sealing the deal and winning a golf tournament.”
CASEY HAPPY FOR HIMSELF AND HIS BUDDY
Casey might actually win the Travelers Championship one day. He lost to Watson in a playoff in his tournament debut in 2015, tied for 17th in 2016, tied for fifth in 2017 and tied for second again last year when he blew a four-stroke lead entering the final round.
Casey was especially pleased with his exploits on No. 15.
“Best shot I’ve ever hit on that hole. A 3-wood,” a smiling Casey said. “It was 256 yards to carry onto the front of the green, and I was yelling, ‘Go’ because I thought it was just going to be short. It’s a very difficult wind off the left, so it’s hard to hit the draw that you need to hold the line. But I did. I pulled it off on a really entertaining hole. Happy to get out of there with a two.”
And he was happy for yet another strong showing in the event that won the PGA Tour’s “Players Choice Award” the last two years and was named “Tournament of the Year” for the first time in 2017.
“There is a reason that this tournament gets voted best on tour by the players it seems almost every year,” Casey said. “The new clubhouse is amazing, and I need to know the name of the builder who can build a clubhouse in 10 months because I can’t get anything done at my house in less than a year. What I’m trying to say is it’s all about the people. That’s what makes this tournament so good. They spoil us with valet parking, even for the caddies. (Travelers executive vice president) Andy Bessette and his team and the fans that come out, they’re the real superstars this week.”
Casey then happily discussed the new champion, a friend who also attended Arizona State University and belongs to the same golf club.
“I wanted Chez to win. He’s tough as nails,” said Casey, who was a senior when Reavie arrived as a freshman. “He’s a dear friend and one of the most solid guys out here. He’s been through a lot of injuries, and he works incredibly hard. We have a lot of common themes, and the golf he played yesterday, the 28 (that tied the back-nine tournament record) was one of the best nines that I can think of since I’ve been on tour, knowing the winds that he faced.
“He wasn’t really heavily recruited. He was just kind of the local kid (Scottsdale, Ariz.) that ended up on the team at ASU. We were very fortunate he chose to play his college golf there. He had the ability to go anywhere. He was the (USGA) Public Links champion, but it looked like he didn’t have the athleticism that a lot of players have on tour now. He didn’t really have that extra something, but what he doesn’t have in stature he makes up for in tenacity and grit.”
Reavie joked that he “pretty much just hounded” the coach of the Wildcats until he had to take him.
“That’s where I wanted to go because of guys like Paul Casey and Jeff Quinney and Matt Jones,” Reavie said. “It was going to be a stepping stone for me. I was either going to get better and learn that I could do it for a living, or I was going to realize I wasn’t good enough and was going to have to get a job. That’s kind of when I came into my own and figured out that I was good enough to come out here and play.”
Casey insists Reavie would have won more on tour if he hadn’t gone through so many injuries.
“I’ve been through injuries as well, so I know how difficult it is,” Casey said. “I’m incredibly proud of what he has achieved on tour. He’s got so much more to achieve as well, so hopefully this is a start of many things.”
TAYLOR FINISHES WITH A FLOURISH
Taylor shot a 1-over 36 on the front nine and then went wild on the back side to grab fourth alone.
“I was playing well all day but just couldn’t really get it going,” said Taylor, who closed with five consecutive birdies for the first time. “Luckily, I hit one close on 14 (two feet), actually hit the pin, and that just kind of got the ball rolling, got me going in the right direction. I just hit a lot of quality shots coming and made a nice putt on the last.”
Taylor hit his approach shot at No. 15 to 16 inches and tapped in for birdie and then converted from 5, 12 and 15 feet on the final three holes.
“I saw 10-under was second, I was three back of that, and was just kind of hoping to try to sneak up on some guys,” Taylor said. “I know Chez is on his form right now. He played well last week, so it was going to be tough to catch him. I was just hoping to catch the other guys ahead of me.”
Taylor caught all but two and garnered his best finish of the season, his previous being a tie for seventh in the Desert Classic.
“I’ve been hanging around 80-90 in the FedExCup standings, so it’s nice to get in there and get some more points,” Taylor said. “I had a lot of in-the-middle finishes lately, and you don’t get many points back there. Hopefully this jumps me up a little bit and gets me in better position for the FedExCup.”
FORTUNATE FINISH FOR ANCER
Ancer capped the day’s best round with a 27-foot chip-in for his eighth birdie and low score of the season by two strokes. It came after he hit his approach shot into the rough, but he was fortunate when he got to his ball.
“I was actually just trying to hit past the pin and have a look at birdie because I had been rolling it really good,” Ancer said. “I got a little bit stuck and blocked it a little to the right. But I stayed really confident. I felt like I could have got that up-and-down, and once I got there and looked at the lie and it didn’t look too bad. Obviously I was just trying to get up and down, but once I got over the ball, I felt like I could give it a chance and it worked out perfectly, obviously.”
Ancer, 28, of San Antonio, Texas, has now made 17 of 22 cuts this season with six Top-10 finishes, including a tie for second in the ISPS Handa World Cup in November.
“I’m extremely happy with how I played this week,” said Ancer, who opened with a 64. “Obviously Thursday and today were really good rounds, but I didn’t score as well on Friday (73) and Saturday (70) when the conditions were pretty tricky, especially on Friday with all the rain. And I’ve been pretty happy with the way I’ve been playing. I feel like all year I’ve been playing solid. I just need to wait for those four rounds to click.”
Starting 13 strokes behind Reavie, Ancer wasn’t thinking about winning, but he managed to pocket plenty of FedExCup points.
“I knew it was so bunched up that a really low one would move me up substantially, so that was my plan,” Ancer said. “I knew I was playing good enough to shoot a low one. It’s good that it’s tricky with the wind, so that makes it tough for a lot of people to play good. We’ll see where it ends up, but I felt like I had a good chance to post a good, and I did.”
Ancer was looking forward to three weeks in Ireland, where he will play in the Irish Open and then the British Open July 18-21 at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Portrush, Ireland.
“Leaving with a good feeling with that good round for a pretty big break is nice,” Ancer said. “I’ve never taken this big of a break playing on the PGA Tour, so it definitely feels good and gives me lots of confidence.”
BUBBA REMAINS BUBBA
Defending champion Watson failed to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for the most tournaments (four), shooting 71 for 279 and a tie for 54th, his worst showing at TPC River Highlands since he missed the cut in his second of 13 appearances. He had five birdies but also made double-bogey 6 at the second and 17th holes.
“It’s always an honor and a privilege to come back as a defending champion,” said Watson, a two-time Masters champion who now has six Top-10 finishes in Cromwell. “That means you’re healthy because the tournament usually lets you back. To be here and to challenge, it’s been a while since we’ve seen conditions like this.
“For me, it was difficult for my technique of chipping and stuff. I hit a lot of fat shots. It’s something to learn from and move on from the side of it but couldn’t ask for better from the Hole in the Wall Gang. Seeing the kids and just interacting with them and talking to different people here at Travelers, it’s been an honor and a privilege to represent the tournament the past year.”
Watson won his first of 12 PGA Tour titles in 2010, when he beat Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin on the second playoff hole and then buried his head into the shoulder of his wife, Angie, because his father, Gerry Sr., was on nearing death due to throat cancer. It was the only victory that the former Green Beret saw his son achieve, and it was the main reason that he qualified for the U.S. Ryder Cup Team that ironically was captained by Pavin. Gerry lived long enough to see Bubba in the most significant team competition in golf.
In 2015, Watson rallied from six strokes back entering the final round, shot 67 to tie Paul Casey and then birdied the first playoff hole for win No. 2 in Cromwell. A year ago, Watson duplicated that feat, closing 63 to again rally from six back to beat Casey, who blew a four-stroke lead the final day, two-time winner Stewart Cink, J.B. Holmes and Beau Hossler.
Watson demonstrated just how much he appreciates the Travelers when he donated $200,000 of his $1,260,000 winnings to give the tournament a record $2 million for charity, with the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp founded by the late Paul Newman being the chief beneficiary. He again showed his feelings this week when he played Wiffle Ball with some the youngsters and gave some of the them gloves and balls as he walked up the 18th hole.
When someone asked if he realized how special he was, Watson smiled and said, “Well, I don’t, no. I never got that as a kid. I never went to golf tournaments, sporting events, but I see the smiles on their faces. We’re talking about growing the game of golf. Not just one sport, right? Now with the Olympics and everything, those kids might be champions here, they might be Olympians one day because of the game of golf. Anything I can do to put a smile on their face is worth it.
“I know sometimes it looks like I’m angry out there, but most of the time I’m pretty happy and I understand what it means. So when I putt out, it’s done It doesn’t matter how good or bad I played. It’s about growing the game and representing the game in the right way,” said Watson.
REST AHEAD FOR NO. 1
Weary No. 1-ranked Brooks Koepka, playing in the first twosome, was 1 under for 11 holes but made a double-bogey 6 on No. 12 in shooting 71 for 280 and a tie for 57th, his worst finish in 14 starts this season other than a missed cut in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He’ll be taking a few weeks off before heading to the British Open. He has won four of his last nine major championship starts, including in the PGA Championship in May and finished second to Woodland in the U.S. Open. … Former Oklahoma State standout Collin Morikawa and Norwegian Viktor Hovland were the only two of the four top-ranked amateurs who received sponsors’ exemptions to play all four rounds. Morikawa, a four-time All-American at the University of California, shot 68 for 276 and a tie for 35th. Hovland, who was making his pro debut after being the low amateur in the Masters and U.S. Open and helping lead Oklahoma State to the 2018 national championship, had 73 for 279. Matthew Wolff, a former teammate of Hovland at OSU, didn’t survive the second cut Saturday. Justin Suh, who led the University of Southern California to the national championship in May, missed the 36-hole cut. He also missed the cut in his pro debut in the Memorial Tournament three weeks ago. … Richy Werenski, the only other New Englander besides Bradley to win the cut, was 1 under for 13 holes and then bogeyed four in a row before a par at No. 18 gave him 73 for 281 and a T-60.