CROMWELL, Conn. – Golf course and schedule are usually the major reasons that PGA Tour players choose to play a tournament.
TPC River Highlands and a change to the PGA Tour schedule this year turned out to be why Phil Mickelson has returned to the Travelers Championship this week for the first time in 16 years.
“It’s weird how this is one of my favorite courses, along with Harbour Town (in Hilton Head, S.C.), because they are just really fun golf courses to play,” Mickelson said after shooting a 5-under-par 65 in the Celebrity Pro-Am on Wednesday while looking a bit unfamiliar wearing shorts. “I haven’t played them very much because they follow majors (Masters and U.S. Open), but with the new schedule, I haven’t played any of the weeks before, so it’s opened up some possibilities to come back to sites like Hartford that I’ve really enjoyed.”
Mickelson, one of golf’s most popular players, is the only back-to-back winner (2001-02 Canon Greater Hartford Open) since the tournament began in 1952 as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club. After his two victories, Mickelson tied for 58th in 2003 and had never been seen again in these parts. Since then, he won his five major championships and increased his PGA Tour titles to 44, ninth all-time, including the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s 16 years since I’ve been here, but it’s been a fun career, a lot of good things have happened,” said Mickelson, who turned 49 on Sunday when he tied for 52nd in the U.S. Open at 8-over 288. “Playing well and doing well at this site is a big part of the good things. I’m very appreciative of that, and it’s fun for me to get back while I still feel like I’m able to compete.”
Reaching that competitive goal has been more difficult since Lefty last played in Connecticut’s biggest sporting event. In the interim, TPC River Highlands’ major facelifts have included a $5 million state-of-the-art practice facility that Mickelson called incredible, extensive course improvements and a new $20 million clubhouse this year that Lefty said “has been very well done to take care of the players and make this a wonderful experience.”
The return to River Highlands might prove to be invigorating to his game.
“I certainly haven’t played at the same level of consistency week in and week out that I did back in my 20s and 30s,” Mickelson said. “When I play well, I’m able to play at a very comparable level to what I played back at the height of my career. I’m able to pick off wins like I did earlier this year at AT&T and last year at Mexico (World Golf Championship-Mexico Championship).
“But I’m just not having as many opportunities, so that’s been the hardest thing for me. Having energy levels and recovering and being focused for each shot in four rounds … Out here, the difference is so small between winning and losing. It’s one shot here or there. That’s something I’ve been working on or that’s the challenge that I face.”
So, too, is not winning the U.S. Open in which he has finished a record six times but is still a victory shy of becoming the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.
“Last week was a great week because I have such emotions and family history there at Pebble Beach, so many great experiences throughout my career,” said Mickelson, a California native who has won the AT&T event five times. “It was just a wonderful setup, tournament, competition. I’m appreciative of the opportunity, even though I didn’t win or play my best. I really don’t have many more chances, probably have come to the realization I’m not going to win the U.S. Open. But I’m not going to stop trying. You never know.”
Despite his lengthy absence from Connecticut, Mickelson said he remembered the greens because of the many fond memories that he has had on them. His 65 put him in a good frame of mind entering the first round Thursday at 1 p.m. off the first tee alongside past champions Jordan Spieth (2017) and Marc Leishman (2012).
“I’m looking forward to having a good tournament, but also it’s fun for me to be back here,” Mickelson said. “It has always been one of the largest supported tournaments that we have. What’s really cool is the back nine offers great risk/reward, exciting finishes, lot of birdies and potential eagles, as well as bogeys and doubles. This is one of the more exciting back nines to finish a golf tournament.”
BROOKS KOEPKA IS STICKING TO THE PROCESS
Brooks Koepka has been the world’s best golfer the last two years, winning four of nine major championships he has played to get to No. 1 in the Official World Ranking. He won the 2018 U.S. Open and PGA Championship, tied for second in the Masters in April, won the PGA Championship again in May and finished second to Gary Woodland on Sunday as he tried to become the first player to win three consecutive U.S. Opens since Willie Anderson in 1903-05.
Despite having to make a 3,000-mile trek from California on Monday, Koepka said he wasn’t going to miss one of his favorite events.
“This is probably one of the more popular ones on the PGA Tour, and one that I would like to keep on my schedule for a long time,” said Koepka, the first player to commit to the tournament in January. “Last year, I don’t even think I knew where I was at (after his second U.S. Open win. It’s a bit hectic, chaotic, but I wouldn’t have missed this tournament. I still feel mentally exhausted from last week being in contention, but another day of rest and I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
Koepka tees off Thursday at 7:45 a.m. off the 10th tee with Tony Finau and three-time defending champion Bubba Watson. Despite his recent successes and moving to No. 1, Koepka said he hasn’t changed his attitude or approach to the game.
“I don’t care where I finish, it’s the process of how am I going to start it online, finish it online and then make the putt?” Koepka said. “I know sometimes it doesn’t happen, but I can’t control the result. I wouldn’t tee it up if I didn’t want to win, but not everything is results-based with me. It’s about the process. I think that’s why I’m able to play so well in the majors because I’m not worried about winning.
“I’m not worried about the pressure of being in first or trying to do something, accomplish three in a row. Even last week, it was just about the process, so if I can get the process down, the result is going to come. That’s kind of how I feel, even this week. Mentally, if my process is there, I’m excited. I even told my caddie today that we’re going to try to take the mental approach we do at the majors this week. I’m going to try something maybe a little bit different and see how it works out.”
Koepka said his current approach is different than when he was at Florida State University, where he was a three-time All-American before turning pro in the summer of 2012 and playing on the Challenge Tour in Europe, winning his first title in September in the Challenge de Catalunya in Spain.
“My process has been more a learning thing because I had to switch from college when I was a hot head,” Koepka said. “I couldn’t understand why to hit a ball 15 feet right of the flag with a 7-iron. Just bugged me. Now I learned to understand that even if I hit in the water or out of bounds, I’m not trying to do that. I’m human. I’m going to make some mistakes. I can get over that.
“I think it’s part of why I’m not afraid to take chances and go for pins, like 18 (on Sunday). It would have stunk to hit it in the water, but at the same time, I’m not trying to hit in the water off the tee. I felt like the process was good going through it, and that’s all I can really do. I committed to the line, see the line, that’s what it is. The yardage, not second-guessing anything.
“Everyone screws up, but once you get over that fact, just break it down a little bit simpler and make it one shot. It might be bad, but if you hit a great one behind it, it’s just as good. Guys let one shot affect them too much. We’re never trying to screw up. We all know that. Nobody is trying to.”
Koepka said TPC River Highlands is a “fun course” to play, especially a week after the mental and physical strain of a U.S. Open.
“If you get hot, you can shoot 9- or 10-under, no problem,” Koepka said. “If you’re just a little bit off, you seem to shoot even par, which can be quite frustrating. But that’s the sign of a really good golf course.”
BUBBA WATSON’S FAVORITE FANS SPEAK UP
As usual, Watson did plenty of entertaining during his press conference. He joked about saying he was never going to return to TPC River Highlands after shooting 74-74 and missing the cut in his tournament debut in 2006 and now being thankful that he had changed his mind. He also thanked Travelers for allowing him to have his first “Bubba’s Sweet Spot” pop-up store in the Fan Zone that is raising money for a charity of the sponsor’s choice.
“It’s one of those things where Travelers said, ‘Hey, what about doing this, putting up a candy shop?’ ” Watson said. “I said, ‘As long as it’s for charity I’m all for it.’ They took the colors and the scheme of my candy shop in Pensacola (Fla.). What an honor and privilege to have a little taste of Pensacola here. We love sugar obviously in Pensacola.
“It’s the first pop-up store I’ve ever been a part of. People have called about franchising my candy shop, but we’ve never let anybody do anything like that yet. We’re still learning the business ourselves. But what an honor and thrill and privilege to have a title sponsor like Travelers come to me and want me to be part of it and show a little love in the Fan Zone. I guess I’m a kid at heart, so it works out.”
With that in mind, the tournament’s choice for proceeds from the candy shop likely will be the tournament’s chief beneficiary, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford founded by the late Paul Newman in 1988. The camp provides “a different kind of healing” to more than 20,000 seriously ill children and family members annually, all free of charge. For many children and families, the Hole in the Wall provides multiple camp experiences throughout the year. In 2018, the tournament raised a record $2 million thanks to Watson donating $200,000 of his $1,260,000 winnings to the final total, leading to a new “Bubba Watson Zone” at the camp.
Five youngsters and four parents involved with the camp attended Watson’s press conference, and Zaire Ramiz, 12, of New Britain and Noah Moquette, 13, of Farmington were among those asking questions.
“I am the first to complain on a golf course when I three-putt or hit the ball in the water or miss a cut,” Watson said. “But when you think about it, how truly blessed I am and my family is. Kids mean so much to me because of the adoption of both my kids. The way I grew up, the way my parents raised me, and then to go to the camp and see these kids, see these families sitting in the lunch room and them singing songs and dancing and singing to me and my wife, what a thrill of a lifetime to think about how blessed we are.
“It’s easy for me to give back because of how lucky am I? I get to play golf for a living and have a candy shop, too. Why not give back and try to help other people?”
Ramiz and Moquette then got into the discussion.
“What age did you start playing golf?” Ramiz asked.
“I was six years old,” Watson said. “My dad wanted me to a baseball player, and my mom said the only way he can go play golf is if he took his son. My mom was the boss, so I went and played golf. Somehow I loved it so just kept playing.”
Moquette wanted to know Bubba’s longest drive.
“Last week we had one measured at 455 yards on the second hole at Pebble Beach, but that was because it went down a cart path,” Watson said with a smile. “It was pretty fun to do that, even if it was off a cart path. But before that, it was 427 yards.”
Watson and his wife Angie and their two children planned to go to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp on Tuesday, but they opted for the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford because of the inclement weather.
“Had to go with an indoor activity yesterday,” Watson said. “I didn’t even hit any balls like some guys did.”
Angie played in the Celebrity Pro-Am for the first time and wanted to be paired with UConn associate women’s basketball coach Chris Dailey, who coached against Angie when she was at the University of Georgia before going into the WNBA. Dailey had to back out because she had to go on a recruiting trip, but Angie’s pro was Fairfield native J.J. Henry, the only Connecticut native to win the tournament (2006).
“Angie was really looking forward to talking basketball, but J.J. said he would try to loosen her up,” Watson joked. “She was worried about hitting people, but I said, ‘Don’t worry about that. I do it all the time. It’s totally fine.’ ”
Watson won’t need much warmup for TPC River Highlands, where he won his first of 12 PGA Tour titles in a playoff with Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank in 2010 and then beat Paul Casey in extra time in 2015. A year ago, Watson didn’t need a playoff thanks to a closing, 7-under-par 63 that was his season low and enabled him to rally from a six-stroke deficit to a three-stroke victory over Casey, two-time champion Stewart Cink, J.B. Holmes and Beau Hossler. He increased his tournament-record career earnings to $4,718,773 and moved within a victory of tying Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament wins.
So it’s little wonder that Watson has enjoyed coming to Connecticut every year since 2008.
“The course is just a perfect blend of shots I can hit,” said Watson, a two-time Masters champion who missed the cut in the U.S. Open last week. “I like to cut the ball, so holes lend to a cut driver. For me, the sightlines, the way the rough is, the course distance, though there are about four holes that get in my head, are tough off the tee.
“But things have worked out good for me. It fits my eye the more I look at it and the more I see it. It’s a fun course that I love coming to, and I think more and more people see all that Travelers does for the players, their families and their caddies and want to come here just because they see the atmosphere.”
FORMER COWBOYS TO MAKE PRO DEBUTS
Former Oklahoma State standouts Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, the No. 1 and 4 ranked amateurs in the world, will make their pro debuts this week. The other two top amateurs to receive sponsors’ exemptions are No. 2 Justin Suh and No. 3 Collin Morikawa, who recently turned pro.
“Giving some of the best young players in golf an opportunity to play in our event has helped us build a relationship with them as they wrap up their amateur careers and turn pro,” tournament chairman Nathan Grube said. “What Viktor, Justin, Collin and Matthew have been able to accomplish at the amateur level is impressive, and we’re looking forward to seeing what they can do as professionals.”
Hovland, 21, is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion who won the Ben Hogan Award, which recognizes the top men’s college golfer while also factoring in amateur competitions. A native of Oslo, Norway, Hovland just finished his junior season at Oklahoma State and made his final amateur start last week in the U.S. Open, making a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a closing 4-under 67 and a 72-hole total of 4-under 280 to tie for 12th, one shot out of an automatic bid for the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot GC in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He won the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, and his 280 broke Jack Nicklaus’ record for the lowest score for an amateur at the U.S. Open set in 1960 at Cherry Hills CC in Englewood, Colo. He also was low amateur in the Masters when he tied for 32nd at 3-under 285, making him the first player since Matt Kuchar in 1998 to be low amateur in the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year. That feat came after he won three individual tournaments this season and helped the Cowboys win the NCAA team title in 2018.
That team also included the long-hitting Wolff, who won the NCAA individual title three weeks ago for his sixth victory of the season, setting a school record. He was named winner of the Jack Nicklaus National Player of the Year Award, received the Haskins Award as the most outstanding collegiate golfer in the United States and was a first-team All-American for both of his seasons at Oklahoma State. A 20-year-old from Agoura Hills, Calif., Wolff won four straight full-field college tournaments as a sophomore and finished the season with a 68.59 stroke average.
Suh helped lead the University of Southern California to the NCAA Championship this season, which ended with him being named a first-team All-American for the second straight year. He tied for fourth in the individual competition and had two victories as a senior. His stroke average of 69.39 was the second-best in school history behind only the 68.73 average he had in his junior year. Suh made his first pro start in the Memorial Tournament three weeks ago and missed the cut when he shot 2-over 146 for 36 holes.
Morikawa was a four-time All-American at the University of California, including a first-team selection in each of his final three seasons. He was named Pac-12 Player of the Year as a senior, when he won the individual conference tournament title, one of his two victories. He tied for sixth individually with an even-par total in the NCAA Championship, the only tournament in 12 stroke-play starts this season where he didn’t finish under par. Morikawa made his pro debut in the RBC Canadian Open and shot 8-under 272 to tie for 14th and earn $125,400 and then shot 1-over 285 to tie for 35th in the U.S. Open and win $57,853.
The tournament has long been known for giving sponsors’ exemptions to leading amateurs turning pro, including future No. 1 David Duval, two-time champion Stewart Cink, 2007 winner Hunter Mahan, Justin Leonard, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Charles Howell III, Patrick Rodgers and Patrick Cantlay, who rallied to win the Memorial Tournament three weeks ago and shot a 10-under 60 as a 19-year-old in the 2011 Travelers Championship, the lowest 18-hole score by an amateur in PGA Tour history. Thomas, Mahan, DeChambeau and Cantlay are playing this week.
TRAVELERS BIRDIES AND BOGEYS
Spieth and amateur partners Jay Rowe, Steve Hauck and Jason Schiciano combined to shoot a 15-under 55 and win the Celebrity Pro-Am. Two teams finished a stroke behind: pro Chesson Hadley and amateurs Dave Johnson, Paul Stetzer and Jay Williams and pro Adam Hadwin and amateurs Jacob Lane, Patrick Martineau and Pete Marucci. … Michael Kim hit a shot 7 inches from the pin to win The Umbrella at 151/2 Challenge on Tuesday. Kim earned $10,000 for the charity of his choice on behalf of the Travelers, and he split the money between the Windy Hill Foundation and the Zach Johnson Foundation. Twenty-three of the 60 players who tried the 85-yard shot hit a 40-foot-long floating green in the shape of the Travelers red umbrella logo located in the pond between the 15th and 16th holes. Todd Gjesvold, the caddie for Russell Henley, won the caddie competition. … The featured pairings the first two rounds are Cantlay-Francesco Molinari-Justin Thomas (7:35 a.m. 10th tee-12:50 p.m. first tee), Koepka-Watson-Finau (7:45 a.m. 10th tee-1 p.m. first tee), Casey-DeChambeau-Jason Day (12:50 p.m. first tee-7:35 a.m. first tee), Mickelson-Leishman-Spieth (1 p.m. first tee-7:45 a.m. 10th tee), Henry-Robert Streb-Ryan Blaum (1:10 p.m. first tee-7:55 a.m. 10th tee), Tommy Fleetwood-Russell Knox-Cameron Smith (12:30 p.m. 10th tee-7:15 a.m. first tee), Kevin Streelman-Peter Oosthuizen-Bud Cauley (1:10 p.m. 10th tee-7:55 a.m. first tee) and Mahan-Scott Langley-Sam Saunders (1:10 p.m. 10th tee-7:55 a.m. first tee). … The tournament has a record purse ($7.2 million) and a record first prize ($1.296 million). … Television coverage will be 3-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday on Golf Channel; and 1-2:45 p.m. on Golf Channel and 3-6 p.m. on CBS on Saturday and Sunday. PGA Tour live online will be 7 a.m.-6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.