HARTFORD, Conn. – Sunday was big-time memorable day for golfers with Connecticut connections.
First, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth in North Berwick, Scotland, newly-minted Travelers Championship winner, Xander Schauffele, blew a four-stroke lead but rallied down the stretch to claim a one-stroke victory at the Genesis Scottish Open.
Back across the pond, at the famed Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, University of Hartford grad Jerry Kelly broke from a logjam of challengers with three birdies in the final six holes to capture the PGA Tour Champions’ Bridgestone Seniors Players Championship for the second time in a three-year span.
Kevin Streelman, the 2014 Travelers Championship winner, nearly made it a threesome but finished second in the Barbasol Championship at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Ky., when he missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the final hole after Trey Mullinax had converted from 15 feet. Mullinax closed with a 6-under-par 66 for a 72-hole total of 25-under 265 for his maiden PGA Tour title while Streelman (67) was seeking his third win.
Schauffele began the day at the Renaissance Club with a two-stroke lead and doubled his advantage with birdies on the first two holes, but three bogeys in four holes starting at No. 6 dropped him one back at the turn. But as he did in the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell on June 26 when he got a bit tentative while losing a three-stroke lead, Schauffele made a 15-foot birdie putt at the 14th hole to take the lead, two-putted from 32 feet for another birdie at the par-5 16th and made an 8 -foot par-saving putt at the 17th. A three-putt bogey from 60 feet at No. 18 gave him an even-par 70 for a 72-hole total of 7-under 273, one clear of Kurt Kitayama, who had 66.
“I’m not going to put makeup on a pig here. It was stressful, and this is a big sense of relief,” said Schauffele, who moved to third in the FedExCup points standings and fifth in the Official World Golf Rankings.
“It was an average day, probably my worst stuff this week, but I just tried to keep my head down and move forward because you can’t get ahead of yourself in links golf. I came out of the gates very nicely and kind of hit a wall and was looking a bit sketchy for a little bit. But it’s what links golf promotes, getting the ball in the hole. It’s definitely difficult golf over here, so you have to stay with it all the time.
“I was telling myself that it doesn’t really have to be pretty, and it wasn’t. But I got the ball in the hole and one better than everyone else. And once that par putt went in on 17, I knew I could lag it up there on the last. All in all, it was a very stressful day, and this is very rewarding. At the turn, I was just trying to find something, so it was nice to hit some better shots down the stretch and calm the ship. This one is extra special because of that.”
It was the third straight time that Schauffele converted a 54-hole lead after starting his career going 0-for-4 in previous such positions. After going winless for more than three years, he captured the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January 2019 and then earned the 2020 Olympic gold medal over local favorite Hideki Matsuyama after taking a one-shot lead into the final round.
Then in the Travelers Championship, Schauffele birdied two of the last four holes for a one-stroke win over J.T. Poston and Sahith Theegala, who double-bogeyed the 18th hole.
In between, Schauffele teamed with close friend Patrick Cantlay for a front-running victory in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in May. He also won the unofficial J.P. McManus Pro-Am on Tuesday in Limerick, Ireland, where the field included 10 to top 12 players in the world rankings.
Now Schauffele has six individual PGA Tour titles and is the hottest player in the game heading into the final major championship of the year, the 150th Open Championship, which begins Thursday at the famed Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. He was runner-up in the 2018 Open Championship after losing the first 54-hole lead of his career.
“You see players do it all the time, you get in the good swing of things, start to get comfortable seeing certain shots and seeing certain putts go in,” said Schauffele, who had his seventh consecutive Top 10 finish on the PGA Tour. “Players always have good stretches, and I’m trying to make this one of my best.”
It’s the second time that Schauffele won back-to-back PGA Tour starts, but his victories in the 2018 World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions and Sentry Tournament of Champions were separated by several weeks.
Schauffele, 28, said he needed the Olympic victory in Japan “to get over the hump” after having eight Top-10 finishes but no wins since his previous title. He said that experience helped him stay calm in the Travelers Championship, admitting things moved too quickly the previous times that he held a lead. The new-found demeanor enabled Schauffele to pocket $1,494,000 in Cromwell and $1.4 million in Scotland.
“I’d be sitting back in the hotel or house on Sunday thinking, ‘What happened today?’” he said.
Schauffele has no such thoughts these days and now looks ready and prepared to win his first major championship.
Joohyun Kim of Korea bogeyed the last hole to shoot 67 for 275 and fall out of a tie for second in the first event that the PGA Tour co-sanctioned with the European Tour. Cantlay (67) and Tommy Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth at 276. Jordan Spieth, the 2017 Travelers Championship winner, birdied the 13th hole to get within a stroke lead of the day but then made double-bogey 5 at No. 14 and had two more bogeys and a birdie to shoot 72 and tie for 10th at 278.
Kitayama, Brandon Wu and Jamie Donaldson, who tied for sixth, earned three spots in the Open field as the top three players not otherwise exempt who finished in the Top 10. Mullinax also earned a berth with his Barbasol Championship win.
Meanwhile, Kelly started the final round in Ohio tied for the lead with Alex Cejka and close friend Steve Stricker, whom he grew up with in Madison, Wisc. He had got into serious title contention Saturday with a bogey-free 65, the low round of the day. He stayed within range of the top spot with 11 pars and a bogey in the first 12 holes and then took command to notch his 10th PGA Tour Champions title after winning three times on the PGA Tour.
Kelly had the shot of the tournament when a 225-yard hybrid shot from the right trees on the 13th hole rolled to within 5 feet of the cup to start his stellar finish. He made birdie putts of 15 and 10 feet on the 16th and 17th hole, and the three-putt at No. 18 merely cut his margin of victory in half. His closing 2-under 68 gave him a 72-hole total of 11-under 269 and a two-stroke victory over Stricker (68), his playing partner in the final group and the defending champion. Kelly beat his buddy in 2020.
“This means a lot,” said Kelly, 55, who was battling an ailing back. “The first major is awesome, but the second one, even more validation, makes you feel a whole lot better. Firestone reminds me a lot of my home course in Madison. The holes are really defined, and I like that. And I’m really excited to go back to (TPC) Sawgrass next March (for The Players Championship in Florida).
That was a big piece of the desire in winning this tournament. That’s one of those great things that we have with our majors that we can get to do play at the high point of golf. I’m really excited about that.”
Kelly also was excited about heeding advice from wife Carol, who watched in person this year after not being present for his runner-up finish in his title defense in 2021 because she had had surgery to remove her right kidney after doctors found a cancerous mass.
“Coming to the course, she said it doesn’t matter what happens today, just keep believing, and that’s what I thought of whenever I missed a putt,” Kelly said. “I mean, just the fact that she’s here this week. It may not be our normal restaurant-laden place or the hotel that is our favorite on tour, but the golf course is that special and she’s like, ‘You know what, I want to be there for you, I love that golf course, it’s really cool just to be out there.’ ”
Ernie Els (68) and Steven Alker (69), the leader in the Charles Schwab Cup standings, tied for third at 272.
Tim Petrovic, Kelly’s teammate at the University of Hartford, shot 70 for 277 and a tie for 11th that included New Britain native and Central Connecticut State University grad Rob Labritz (72).
WOODS, MCILROY, TREVINO PAIRED AT ST. ANDREWS
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy played practice rounds together last week in Ireland, and now they’ll be paired with former Wethersfield native, two-time Open champion and World Golf Hall of Famer Lee Trevino and 2018 British Women’s Open winner Georgia Hall in the Celebration of Champions on Monday at the Old Course at St. Andrews. The foursome will tee off as the last group at 5:05 p.m. local time (12:05 Eastern time).
Defending Open champion Collin Morikawa will hit the first tee shot of the exhibition at 3:05 p.m. alongside reigning Women’s Open champion Anna Nordqvist, Women’s Amateur champion Jess Baker and Keita Nakajima, the world’s No. 1 amateur. The best two of four scores count on each hole, and the team with the lowest total on the first, second, 17th and 18th holes will be the winner.
The full draw for the exhibition will be announced Monday.
Woods, who will play in his first event since withdrawing after the third round of the PGA Championship on May 21 due to lingering problems from a horrific car crash in February 2021, is scheduled to give a press conference Tuesday at 11 a.m. (6 a.m. Eastern time). Woods won two of his three Open titles among 15 major championships at St. Andrews, including in 2000 when he romped to an eight-stroke victory, a modern-day tournament record. He played his first 18-hole practice round of the year before a major on Sunday with close friend Justin Thomas after the two walked the Old Course on Saturday night with short irons and putters.
“He was struggling early but came on as the day went on,” Woods’ caddie, Newtown native Joe LaCava, told ESPN. “That’s encouraging.”
Woods didn’t talk to reporters Sunday, but in a statement released Saturday, he said, “This is going to be a special week of golf and having many of the sport’s great champions and future stars play in (the Celebration of Champions) is a great way to mark this historic championship. St. Andrews has such a unique atmosphere, and I’m looking forward to playing in front of the fans again and on a course that holds fantastic memories for me.”
The R&A Celebration of Champions will be broadcast live from St. Andrews on television, as well as TheOpen.com and The Open’s YouTube channel. Fans can also follow the action via The Open Radio, The Open App and The Open’s various social channels.