CROMWELL, Conn. – No spectators. No concession stands. No corporate skyboxes. No earth-shattering roars from some of the largest crowds on the PGA Tour.
Despite seven players withdrawing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Travelers Championship again proved why it’s the biggest and most important sporting event in Connecticut. The starting field was the best since the tournament began as the Insurance City Open in 1952, and though two of the top five players in the world didn’t get to the first tee at TPC River Highlands because of the virus, high drama and a stirring finish produced yet another worthy champion.
As in most sports, you often need to be good AND lucky as bearded Dustin Johnson proved Sunday on the way to a 3-under-par 67 for a 72-hole total of 19-under 261 and a one-stroke victory over 2014 champion Kevin Streelman after being 1-over for his first 12 holes on Thursday.
After starting the final round two strokes behind Brendan Todd, four birdies gave Johnson a three-shot lead with six holes to go after Todd made a triple-bogey 7 at No. 12. But Johnson’s hooked drive at the reachable par-5 13th hole hit a cart path and went inches out of bounds, and man who moved from sixth to third in the rankings had to make an 10-foot putt for bogey to remain two ahead of Streelman, who had made a 10-footer for birdie in the group ahead.
Johnson then got one of the most fortuitous breaks in tournament history at the drivable par-4 15th hole when his pulled 3-hybride drive stopped inches from a pond thanks to the ground being soggy from rain Saturday and Sunday afternoons. He took off his shoes and socks, waded into the water, didn’t get his pitch to the green, hit another pitch to 3 feet and made the putt for par to remain two ahead of Streelman.
“I hit the hybrid very poorly,” Johnson said in a major understatement. “I obviously made a nice par save, so I felt good. I had the confidence. I was ready to finish out the golf tournament and then obviously they blow the horn.”
As Johnson and Todd headed for the 16th tee, lightning suspended play for an hour. When play resumed, Johnson hit a 7-iron shot into a bunker, blasted 40 feet past the pin and two-putted for bogey as Streelman was making a routine par at No. 17 to get within a stroke.
“We had a few minutes to warm up, so it wasn’t like I was stiff or anything but I just caught my shot a little thin on 16,” Johnson said. “I knew I was not trying to hit anywhere near the right bunker, and I did. It was just a poor shot, but I managed to hold it together and hit some really good shots on 17 and 18.”
Johnson made a routine par on the 17th hole and then powered a 351-yard drive on No. 18, the longest of the day on the hole by 15 yards, hit an 82-yard lob wedge shot to 12 feet and two-putted for his 21st career victory. That enabled Johnson to tie Hall of Fame members Davis Love III, William Macfarlane, Craig Woods and 1992 Canon Greater Hartford Open champion Lanny Wadkins for 30th on the PGA Tour wins list.
“I putted very nicely, and it’s very exciting to get my 21st win and my first win of the season,” said Johnson, who used a new putter that had him feeling as if he was rolling the ball down the line better. “It was big because I hadn’t played well, but I put in a lot of good work the last couple weeks after Colonial (Charles Schwab Challenge) so it’s nice to see the game just start coming around.
“It’s definitely strange playing with no fans, but you still can feel the pressure, you still can feel how important a golf tournament it is. It was strange not seeing a whole bunch of people around the 18th green, but coming down the stretch, it felt the same to me, whether it was a million fans or zero.”
Johnson got into contention with a career-best 61 in the third round and became the fourth player in PGA Tour history to win in each of his first 13 seasons, joining Hall of Famers Jack Nicklaus (17), Arnold Palmer (14) and Tiger Woods (14). He also has six World Golf Championships victories, second to Woods’ 18, and is the only player to win each of the four WCT events.
“Anytime you’re mentioned with Jack and Tiger, along with Arnie, you’ve got to feel good because they’re the best that’s ever played this game,” said Johnson, who became No. 1 in February 2017 and remained there for 64 consecutive weeks. “Anytime your name is mentioned in the same sentence with them, I’m very happy.”
Streelman won six years ago thanks to closing with seven consecutive birdies, the most in PGA Tour history by a champion. There’s a plaque on the 12th commemorating the start of Streelman’s record run, but he narrowly missed birdie putts on the last two holes this year to finish one back after a 67, his 14th consecutive sub-70 round at TPC River Highlands.
“I have to take a lot of positives,” said Streelman, who had missed the cut in his two starts since the PGA Tour resumed play. “It’s a little bit disappointing, but I just played beautifully, played nice golf. To be in the hunt and to perform is what I do it for. I don’t know how (the approach) on 17 didn’t come down the hill (on the green). Literally a foot let, and it’s a kick-in and maybe we’d have a chance at a playoff. But Dustin played beautifully, and he’s obviously tough to compete with when he’s on top of his game.
“I did my best, and that’s all I can ask for. And I sure love this place. It’s very special for me to always get back here. The whole team is just incredible. (Tournament director) Nathan (Grube) and (Travelers executive) Andy (Bessette) are just the best in the business. It’s an honor to be here and to be a past champion, and I plan to come back here for many more years to come.”
Todd, ranked 58th in the world, started the day with a two-stroke lead, and it stayed that way until Johnson muscled a shot out of the rough on the difficult par-4 fourth hole to 4 feet and made birdie. On the equally difficult par-3 fifth hole, Johnson hit a 4-iron to 8 feet and converted again to tie it. After both narrowly missed makeable birdie bids at No. 6, Todd missed only his second fairway of the week at the par-4 seventh but managed to make a routine par and reclaim the lead when Johnson hit his approach over the green and failed to make a 12-foot putt for par.
But Johnson made an impressive comeback, sinking a curling 27-foot putt for birdie 2 at No. 8 and then hitting a wedge shot to 4 feet to set up another birdie and take the lead at 19 under. Johnson doubled his lead in spectacular fashion, making a 38-foot birdie putt from the right fringe at No. 10 to reach 4 under for the day and 20 under for the tournament.
Will Gordon, 23, birdied the 18th hole to shoot 64 and tie for third at 263 with Canadian Mackenzie Hughes, earning a spot in the new Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit this week. Gordon, who doesn’t have a PGA Tour card and nowhere to play after the MacKenzie Tour in Canada was canceled because of the virus, thanked Grube and Bessette for a sponsor’s exemption.
“Nathan and Andy have had a long history of giving young guys opportunities,” Gordon said, “and last summer when I was up in Canada, there were guys down here my age getting starts, and they were able to take advantage last summer. I was really excited and thankful to have the opportunity this year and looking forward to taking advantage and felt confident. I was supposed to play in three events that got canceled over COVID, so for those guys to take a chance on me and believe in me means the world.”
Mackenzie Hughes, winner of the Honda Classic whose 60 was a tournament record for the first round, made a 48-foot birdie putt that broke 15 feet on the 17th hole and a 44-footer on No. 18 to shoot 64. The tie for third earned Hughes enough non-member FedExCup points to qualify for unlimited sponsor’s exemptions as a special temporary PGA Tour membership. The top-10 finish earned a spot in the Rocket Mortgage Classic, where he had a sponsor’s exemption.
“It’s awesome,” Hughes said of his special temporary membership. “I knew something in the top five would maybe have a chance, but I couldn’t control that so I knew the higher the better and was watching the leaderboard coming in. (Playing partner and second-ranked Jon) Rahm didn’t play great today, but I was really impressed with how kind and how supporting he was to me. On 16, we were just walking up, and Jon was asking if I had Korn Ferry status, and I told him kind of my situation really quickly. He was just super encouraging. He just told me to birdie the last three (holes), and I wouldn’t have anything to worry about.”
Phil Mickelson, the only back-to-back winner in tournament history (2001-02) who led after 36 holes at 13-under 127, shot a second straight 71 to tie for 24th at 269. Defending champion Chez Reavie, who made the cut on the number at 136, shot 69 to tie for 46th at 273.
“I’m looking as this week as progress,” said Mickelson, who turned 50 last week. “Certainly the goal is to win golf tournaments, but keep in mind, I’ve missed a bunch of cuts (three). I haven’t played to the level I’ve wanted to, and this week I came in and had a lot of great finds. I hit a lot of good shots, hit a lot of good tee shots, my misses were much better. I didn’t score well on the weekend, but I had a lot of penalty strokes so it was a good week of progress. I feel this is a good momentum builder.”
“I was a little off today, but I’m having a lot of fun,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t played great this year. I’ve missed a lot of cuts, and the next thing I know my game is starting to come back and I can sense it, and then I play two great rounds, which is really a lot of fun. We all have days where we’re just a fraction off, where you think you hit a good shot and it doesn’t quite work out, and I felt like I had one of those days. Then usually the next day you come back out and put it all together.”
Mickelson and others failed to achieve that goal the final round thanks to more difficult pin placements and the wind kicking up in the afternoon that caused scores not to be nearly as low the first 54 holes. But it didn’t prevent yet another finale filled with good and bad memories.
Officials announced the tournament generated more than $1.6 million for charity, not far from the record $2.1 million in 2019 when there were ticket sales, concessions, parking and other means of raising money. Besides the usual local charities to receive proceeds, $1 million was committed to racial equality and police enforcement and an undisclosed amount to the COVID-19 relief fund. The 2021 Travelers Championship will be June 24-27.