CROMWELL, Conn. – Before leaving TPC River Highlands after his Travelers Championship debut a year ago, Rory McIlroy pledged to return in 2018.
The personable smiling Irishman certainly fulfilled his pledge in spades. He was the first player to commit in late January, a rarity for most players, especially a former No. 1 now ranked seventh in the world.
“At this point last year, I needed to play,” said McIlroy, who closed with a 6-under-par 64 to tie for 17th at 274. “I had a rib injury and sort of came back at the U.S. Open, but even before that, I wanted to play a little bit and added this tournament to my schedule.
“But while I felt I needed to play some rounds and some golf, anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament, about the golf course, how the guys were treated, how the fans come out, how the community always gets behind the event. Obviously, I witnessed that for the first time last year.”
Other than putting woes that led to him using 10 putters during the week, McIlroy liked everything that he witnessed, leading to his declaration to be back this week. Ironically, the $7 million event received four major awards from the PGA Tour for 2017, including Tournament of the Year and the Players’ Choice Award. Plus, Jordan Spieth’s 61-foot bunker on the first playoff hole to beat close friend Daniel Berger was the first time in PGA Tour that a player won in that manner.
“I really enjoyed it,” said McIlroy, who hit balls on the practice range with Spieth on Monday after both missed the cut in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. “Sometimes having a tournament right after a major doesn’t help, but I think having this tournament right after the tournament last week gets guys back into their normal routines. They play a golf course where you can make birdies, you can get on runs, and that’s a nice thing.
“It’s a nice part of the world to be in this time of year. The weather is always in really good shape. It’s just all of that together just makes it a really enjoyable week.”
Tournament director Nathan Grube and Travelers Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Bessette received major kudos for being major reasons that players like to come to an event that has been on the PGA Tour since 1952.
Justin Thomas, another former No. 1 who is now ranked second and will defend his PGA Championship title in August, feels a bit obligated to return every year after being given a sponsors’ exemption while an amateur at the University of Alabama in 2012. He also said he likes the TPC River Highlands course because it’s short by PGA Tour standards but allows for a variety of winners.
“This is a great tournament,” said Thomas, who gave Grube a jab about having attended Auburn, Alabama’s arch rival. “All the events we play are incredible, but this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play do they realize how great it is. The Travelers staff, everyone on the committee, they just treat us so well. They get an unbelievable fan showing here.
“The field is getting very impressive, which I thin is a testimony to them, and I think a lot of guys like Jordan and Rory, guys that never played here but once they came they realized how great of a tournament it is. It’s one that I’ve really enjoyed, and it has an even more special place to met since I got an exemption as an amateur.
“It’s a cool tournament that, along with the John Deere (Classic), have great reputations of giving young guys an opportunity to start their professional career. And they were both tremendous to me, and that stuff doesn’t go unnoticed. It is really cool because some potential great story lines can come from it.”
And Grube and Bessette made a special impression on Thomas.
“Even if I didn’t see them I would still want to come most likely,” Thomas said. “But I love Andy and Nathan. Just seeing them week in and week out definitely for other guys, I’m sure. I remember one tournament this year, Quail Hollow, where they saw a little station of snacks of peanut butter and jellies that you could make, and Andy and Nathan are like, ‘Man, that’s good. Why don’t we do it?’ So it’s little things like that that other tournament directors may not think that it’s a big deal to us. I mean, it’s a pretty big deal.”
Masters champion Patrick Reed, who challenged until the final holes at the U.S. Open, is making his seventh appearance at River Highlands, including finishing fifth last year.
“This is one of my favorite spots to be,” Reed said. “We love coming here We love the area. We think the golf course is great. It’s always in really good, almost perfect, shape every year we come, and the fans and the people, Travelers and everybody who’s helping with the event has always been very kind, very generous and very nice to all of us and very supportive. What better way to repay them than by always coming to their event.”
Reed hopes to have a carryover from last week, when he birdied five of the first seven holes on Sunday and was only a stroke back early on the back nine before two bogeys cost him a shot at his second successive major title. He closed with 2-under 68 for 284 and fourth place, three strokes behind Brooks Kopeka, who became the first player since 1984 Greater Hartford Open winner Curtis Strange to capture back-to-back titles (1988-89).
“Any time you get in contention in a major and put together a solid and good performance it always gives you confidence and makes you feel good and makes you feel like what you’re doing is the right thing and you’re going in the right direction,” Reed said. “We feel good just making sure the energy level stays up and just looking forward to the week and getting out and playing some golf.
“If you told me that I had a chance to win it coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at a major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday. The good thing is I knew I had to go out and put some pressure on the leaders, and to be able to flip that switch and just be able to go 5-under the first seven on a Sunday at a major just gives me confidence more than anything.
“Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and won, but it was a great week, all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. Last week was last week, and I take positives from it, and the things that I didn’t do well are things that I’m just going to work on (Tuesday) and (Wednesday) to get ready for this week.”
Reed got ready by cutting back on his work load because playing in a major championship can take a major toil both physically and mostly mentally.
“You go into this golf course and you think about it completely different than you did last week,” Reed said. “This week it’s kind of attack mode. Last week was how can I manage myself around here where I have the hard holes you can make pars on and the easy holes I can attack to make birdies.
“It’s definitely different. This week it’s guns blazing. Everyone is going to be firing at flags, and last week it was more like let’s try to survive.”
Thomas (No. 2), Koepka (No. 4), Spieth (No. 5), McIlroy (No. 7), Jason Day (No. 9) and Reed (No. 11) have all had plenty of chances to win this year and are headliners in the $7 million tournament that begins Thursday at 7 a.m. off the first and 10th tees. Other notables in the 156-man include Berger, No. 13, Paul Casey, No. 16 Marc Leishman, No. 20 Bubba Watson, No. 21 Webb Simpson, No. 22 Bryson DeChambeau, No. 24 Xander Schauffele, No. 28 Mike Harman, No. 30 Patrick Cantlay, former Travelers winners Stewart Cink, Kevin Streelman and Fairfield native J.J. Henry, the only Connecticut player to win the event; major champions Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen and 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, who shot a PGA Tour-record, 12-under-par 58 in the final round in 2016, and Tony Finau, who was fifth in the U.S. Open.
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