HARTFORD, Conn – Hartford native and Central Connecticut State University grad Rob Labritz has a good chance to finish as the low club professional in the PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park Black Course on Sunday May 19.
Labritz, the Director of Golf at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, N.Y., shot a 4-over-par 74 Saturday for a 54-hole total of 8-over 218, which is two behind the leading club pro, Ryan Vermeer, heading into the final round. Labritz, a father of two who turns 48 on May 31, had one birdie, three bogeys and a double bogey and is tied for 70th after advancing to the weekend thanks to a second-round 69 that enabled him to be among 82 players to qualify for the final two rounds, finishing 36 holes at the cut line of 144.
Labritz, Vermeer and Marty Jertson were the club pros to make the cut in the 156-man field. The trio are the most club pros to reach the weekend since the PGA of America pared the number of local pros in the field to 20, beginning in 2006.
Vermeer, the 2018 PGA Professional Championship winner and Director of Instruction at Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, Neb., also narrowly made the cut, shot a 72 that included two birdies for 214 and a tie for 58th. Jertson, the Vice President of Fitting and Performance for PING from Phoenix, Ariz., was 1 over for 36 holes after a second-round 69 but started double bogey-bogey on Saturday on his way to an 80 that dropped him into a tie for 77th at 220. He finished with one birdie, five bogeys and two double bogeys.
Labritz is playing in his fifth PGA Championship and also made the cut in 2010, when he was the only club pro to play the final 36 holes and tied for 68th at the Straits Course of the Whistling Straits complex in Haven, Wisc. But this time Labritz is being followed by about 100 members from GlenArbor, a 90-minute to Bethpage State Park, who are wearing “Rob’s Mob” T-shirts. He won the New York State Open on the Bethpage Black Course in 2008, 2011 and 2016 and once shot 65 in his previous 69 rounds there.
Since 2013, Labritz has carried in his yardage book 10 words of inspiration from one of his club members, the late Robbie Risman, who died in an automobile accident several years ago. It says, “Keep grinding always, but look around and enjoy the ride.” Labritz qualified for this year’s PGA Championship by finishing eighth in the PGA Professional Championship two weeks ago at Belfair in Bluffton, S.C.
While Vermeer, Labritz and Jertzon each have a shot at low club pro honors, Brooks Koepka appears a lock to win a second consecutive PGA Championship after shooting an even-par 70 for 12-under 198 and a tournament-record seven-stroke lead for 54 holes over four players. Koepka, whose 12-under 128 was the low 36-hole score in major championship history, birdied two of the first five holes while paired with 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth, who needed a victory this week to complete the career Grand Slam. But after shooting 5-under 135 to tie for second midway through the tournament, Spieth shot himself out of contention with a 3-over 38 on the easier front nine in a 72 that dropped him into a tie for eighth at 207.
Koepka, the 2018 PGA Tour Player of the Year, continued to be nearly flawless for eight holes, making birdies at Nos. 2 and 5, before missing a 3-foot par putt at No. 9 and then making back-to-back bogeys for the first time in the tournament after an errant drive at the difficult 10th hole. He scrambled for two pars before sinking a 17-foot birdie putt at No. 13, made two routine pars and three-putted the 16th for bogey before two closing pars put him even for a day in which he hit 14 of 18 greens despite battling his swing for the second consecutive round.
“I’m really satisfied with the way I struck the ball,” said the low-keyed Koepka, who played three years on the European PGA Tour before qualifying for the PGA Tour. “I felt I hit it better than (Friday in a 65) even though I didn’t score as well. But I left a few putts short. I was hitting the putts solid and on line but just not hard enough and left a few short.”
If Koepka wins Sunday, he will ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking thanks to his fourth major championship victory in eight starts that would make him the first player to hold back-to-back major titles simultaneously. Koepka, who finished one stroke behind Tiger Woods in the Masters, will seek a third consecutive U.S. Open title June 13-16 at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California before heading to Connecticut for the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
Long-hitting Dustin Johnson and Luke List, Harold Varner III and 23-year-old Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand share second place at 205.
Johnson, Koepka’s close friend and workout partner, got to 7 under when he shot 3-under 32 on the easier front nine but struggled on the back, making his fourth bogey at No. 18 for 69. List birdied Nos. 12-14 to also get to 7 under but bogeyed the last two holes for 69.
Varner and Janewattananond each shot 67 to share low round of the day. Varner had three birdies and no bogeys, while Janewattananond, playing in his first PGA Championship, had four birdies, including a 10-foot putt at the 18th, and two bogeys.
Suzy Whaley of Cromwell, the first female president in the history of the PGA of America after becoming the first officer in 2014, will help in the presentation of the Wanamaker Trophy to the winner. Whaley, 51, played the LPGA Tour in 1990 and 1993 and became only the ninth woman to obtain PGA Master Professional certification, the highest educational honor a PGA member can achieve, in 2018. In 2002, she won the Connecticut Section PGA Championship to become the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event, the 2003 Greater Hartford Open, since Babe Zaharias in 1945. She now is considered one of the leading teaching pros in the world.
Whaley will likely be giving the Wanamaker Trophy to Koepka, who will make his fourth start in the $7.2 million Travelers Championship in five weeks. Defending champion Bubba Watson, who missed the cut in the PGA Championship by a stroke, will try to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most victories (four) in the tournament that started as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club in 1952. A year ago, Watson shot a closing 7-under 63 to rally from a six-stroke deficit to a three-shot victory, which was his same route that he took to his first PGA Tour win in 2010, when he parred the second playoff hole to beat Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank. Watson also try to join Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson (2001-2002) as the only repeat winners in Connecticut’s largest sporting event. Mickelson is returning to Cromwell for the first time in 16 years.
Watson and Mickelson are part of the best field since Travelers became the title sponsor in 2007 that already includes 14 of the Top 23 players in the rankings. The other leading ranked players include Koepka, Francesco Molinari, who became the first Italian to win a major championship in the British Open last year, 2017 PGA Championship winner and FedExCup champion Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Paul Casey, Tony Finau, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Cantlay and 2012 Travelers Championship winner Marc Leishmann.