CROMWELL, Conn. – The Travelers Championship has certainly had its share of special moments on TPC River Highland’s 18th green.
Paul Azinger’s chip-in for a second title in 1989, Olin Browne’s chip-in on the first playoff hole in 1998, Chris Stroud’s 51-foot putt before losing a playoff to Ken Duke in 2016, Russell Knox’s 12-foot par-saving putt to beat University of Hartford grad Jerry Kelly in 2016 and – the granddaddy of them all – Jordan Spieth’s 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole in 2017, the only such winning shot in PGA Tour history.
Well, the fans, who sure sounded as if there were more than the supposed limit of 10,000 after none a year ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic, got a memorable trifecta on Sunday.
First, Harris English, known for his stoic demeanor, was anything but after sinking a 28-foot birdie putt and then double fist pumping his way to the cup. But two groups later, Kramer Hickok, playing with three-time champion Bubba Watson with whom he shared the third-round lead, sank a 9-foot putt to tie and force the 24th26 playoff in the tournament’s 70-year history.
As the combatants started to head down the 18th hole to start the playoff, the fans showed their partisanship by chanting “Kra-mer, Kra-mer, Kra-mer.” They didn’t get their wish, but it certainly took a while to find out as English sank a 15-foot birdie putt on the eighth playoff hole – the sixth on No. 18 – for his fourth career victory while becoming the fifth two-time titlist this season.
“It was just awesome, and the fans kept me in it,” said English, who won the Sentry Tournament of Champions to start the season and is now second in the FedExCup points standings and has a good chance to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. “It’s what it’s all about, grinding it out trying to win. It wasn’t always pretty, but we both made some tough par putts. I had had the same (birdie) putt a couple of times in the last two hours, so I knew the line.
“It’s hard to stay mentally into it, but I tried early hard to stay focused and sharp and really be on my toes because in a playoff situation it’s match-play scenarios so you have to be ready for anything. … The fans are usually really good here, and you have to give them a shoutout. Hats off to Kramer for a good fight, and we were both joking that somebody had to make a birdie at some point, and this is validation that I’m doing the right stuff in Sea Island (Ga.).”
English and Hickok survived a wild shootout in which a dozen players had a chance for the title, and each made two crucial putts to save par in the playoff, with Hickok also lipping out on the second and fifth holes for victory. The playoff tied the second longest in PGA Tour history to the 11 holes in the 1949 Motor City Open in which Lloyd Mangrum and Dr. Cary Middlecoff were declared co-winners. The longest previous tournament playoffs were seven holes and won by Billy Maxwell and Bob Goalby in 1961 and 1962 at Wethersfield Country Club, the original home of the event that started in 1952 as the Insurance City Open.
English, who began the day two strokes back, shot a closing 5-under-par 65 for a 72-hole total of 13-under 267, which was matched by Hickok’s 67. Hickok, a former teammate and roommate of Spieth at University of Texas, was trying to become the seventh first-time winner this season. That included close friend Sam Burns, who captures the Valspar Championship and watched the finish with Hickok’s family and wife Anne, who surprised Kramer with her presence and brought their dog Eleanor on the 18th green after he finished several interviews.
“I’m tired and never thought I’d play (26) holes, but some pins were tucked so it was really hard to get the ball close,” said Harris, alluding to winds that gusted to 20 mph. “It was a huge learning experience and just a tremendous day. It was just a hard-fought battle and kudos to Harris. There were times I put him in a tough spot, he put me in a tough spot, and he came out on top and is a true champion.
“But pressure is a privilege, and I just tried to soak it all in and enjoyed the entire situation.”
Hickok, 29, who shared the first-round lead at 63, was trying to become only the fourth player to win on the MacKenzie, Korn Ferry and PGA Tour. He started the week 139th in the FedExCup standings but finished with his second Top-10 finish on the PGA Tour after three wins on the MacKenzie and Korn Ferry Tours.
Marc Leishman, the 2012 Travelers champion, shot a 4-under 31 on the back nine to get into contention and finished with a bogey-free 64 for 268, one out of the playoff. But he had other things on his mind after learning close friend John Mascatello died Sunday morning.
“It was a tough day,” said Leishman, who finished nearly two hours ahead of the leaders. “I was definitely thinking about that, and things like golf is obviously not the ball all end all. I was thinking of his family. Not getting over the line is kind of irrelevant at the moment.”
The second biggest story of the day was the late collapse of Bubba Watson, who was trying to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament wins (four). Watson started the day tied for the lead and held the narrow edge through a 3-under 32 on the front nine and three holes on the back. But he started slicing shots to the left and closed with four bogeys and a double bogey for 75 that dropped him into a tie for 19th at 273.
“I thought I hit good shots but just came out of a few and pushed them or they came up short,” Watson said. “It was one of those things that if it would have happened on the front nine, we wouldn’t be talking about it. So I’m glad that I was there, had the opportunity. I would love to do it again next week, throw up on myself again. It would be great. I want the opportunity and chance to win.”
Watson had earned his first PGA Tour victory at River Highlands 11 years to the day and was trying to tie Casper for four wins at 42, the same that he won his fourth at Wethersfield Country Club.
Jim Herman made third hole-in-one of the week at the 16th hole on the way to 70 and a tie for 25th at 274. Dustin Johnson, who was trying to join Phil Mickelson (2001-02) as the only repeat winners in tournament, was among those who tied with Herman after shooting 71. Mickelson shot 69 to tie for 61st at 279.