CROMWELL, Conn. – On the longest day of the year where the weather was a New England classic of morning rain followed by gusting winds and finally brilliant sunshine, longshot Zach Sucher continued to make a steady name for himself in the Travelers Championship.
Sucher, ranked 505th in the world and in the tournament thanks to a last-minute Korn Ferry Tour exemption from the Travelers, eagled his fourth hole and then quickly birdied three in a row on the way to a 5-under-par 65 at TPC River Highlands on Friday. It gave Sucher a 36-hole total of 11-under 129 and a two-stroke lead over Vermont native Keegan Bradley and Chez Reavie. He had missed the cut in his first two Travelers Championship starts, shooting 142 in 2015 and 143 in 2017.
“The putter was definitely good today,” said Sucher, who shared the first-round lead with five other players after being the last to tee off on No. 1. “I drove it well yesterday (in shooting 64), but today my driver struggled a bit on my front nine, which was the back nine. After that, I kind of fixed it, but the front nine I putted really well and made some good saves.”
That was the antithesis of luminaries such as Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson, 2007 champion Jordan Spieth, Padraig Harrington and Fairfield native J.J. Henry, all of whom weren’t among the 82 players who shot 2-under 138 or better to qualify for the final 36 holes.
Sucher, 32, of Birmingham, Ala., is trying to save his career after being sidelined for 13 months because of left ankle and knee injuries he sustained after the 2017 Travelers Championship. The ankle injury stemmed from playing basketball in high school in Mobile, Ala., and then he had tendon and cartilage problems from repeatedly swinging and not being able to turn on the ankle. That caused his knee to hurt and wear down, but fixing two ligaments and a tendon in the ankle got him on his way to recovery – with lots of pain.
“I didn’t hit a golf shot (during the golf sabbatical) because of the ankle,” said Sucher, who took a major medical exemption to keep status on the PGA Tour. “The lady was right who did the surgery. She said, ‘After six months, you’ll be running, but you’re not going to be able to twist on it very much.’ So it took forever.
“It was actually kind of nice to be home every day playing with my two kids, but the first three or four months were a bit of a struggle. Everything would hurt after I was done, but the last four or five months have been great, pain-free and feeling really good. I had some therapists and a trainer down in Birmingham that have been huge for me. It’s been awesome.”
Even more awesome than wrestling an alligator, a la Danbury native Ken Green who pulled off the feat in an attempt to save his dog. Sucher’s 64-65 start are his two lowest scores on the PGA Tour. He has a tie for second and tie for fourth on the Korn Ferry Tour (formerly Web.com Tour), where he has one win and has earned $679,544 in 2019.
“The last few years I had on the Web.com were a bit of a struggle,” Sucher said. “Every time I made it out here, it seemed like the harder I worked, the more the left leg would hurt. But now it’s nice. It’s the first year I can remember in a long time where I’m pain-free, and it’s feeling really good. It’s nice to be out here.”
Sucher, whose best finish in 35 PGA Tour events over three seasons is a tie for 20th in the 2015 Barracuda Championship, said he plans to focus on more of the same over the weekend.
“I want to be aggressive off the tee, and then I’m trying to place my irons to give myself some uphill putts,” he said. “I just want to give myself more looks (at birdies), play aggressive off the tee and give myself the right putts.
“It feels great (to be in the lead), and it’s really nice to have all the hard work pay off. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but right now it’s feeling great.”
Bradley spiced a 66 with an eagle 2 at the 289-yard, par-4 15th hole, where he knocked in an 80-foot chip shot after hitting his drive just short of the green.
“It was raining, so I hit driver,” Bradley said. “It was about 258 yards to the front, and I hit it as hard as I could, and it went about 250. Then I was talking to my caddie about how it was wet and was going to skid. We landed it a little short of where we normally would, and it went over the hill and right in the hole. I read it perfectly and it went right in the middle. It was fun.”
Two birdies also helped Bradley move into the share of second with Reavie, who also shot 66 after he tied for third in the U.S. Open on Sunday.
“It was great,” said Bradley, followed by several dozen family and friends. “I felt comfortable all day. Sometimes it’s tough to back up those rounds (opening 65), and I did that today. … I’ve had a good year other than I’ve got to put four rounds together. I haven’t done that yet, and hopefully this will be the week. What a better place to do it than here in New England.”
Reavie’s solid play 3,000 miles away at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California last week has continued for two more rounds. After an opening 65, Reavie had a bogey-free 66 and has only one bogey for 36 holes.
“I’m very happy,” understated Reavie, who will tee off in the final group today with Sucher at 1:55 p.m. “I hit the ball well the last two days, but more importantly, I thought my way around the golf course really well, especially today with the wind and rain.
“The last three years, I’ve been trending in the right direction. I think last year I was very consistent as well, and it’s been good this year, too. I’ve been working really hard with Mark Blackburn, and we’ve built a good foundation. Now it’s just to me to go out there and perform.”
Andrew Putnam, a longtime competitor of Sucher, started at No. 10, and birdied five of six holes, including four in a row, to turn in 4-under 31 despite a bogey at the 18th after a drive into a fairway bunker. After a par at the first hole, Putnam holed out a 76-yard wedge shot for eagle 2 at No. 2 to get to 10 under and tied with Brandon Burgoon, who also started at No. 10 and birdied four of his first six holes. But Putnam bogeyed No. 6 and then hit his drive out of bounds on No. 9 on the way to a double-bogey 6 for 67-133 and a seven-way tie for sixth that included two-time Travelers runner-up Paul Casey and Jason Day, whose 63 was the low round of the day.
Ryan Moore, a frequent challenger but never a winner in Cromwell, had a bogey-free 64 for 132 and a tie for fourth with Burgoon (68).
“The golf course is playing very different than I think I’ve ever seen it play just because it’s not very warm, so the ball is not rolling anywhere,” said Moore, the first player off the first tee in the first round. “I had two consecutive holes, a par-4 and a par-3, where I had to hit 5-wood into on my second nine. Fortunately, I made birdie with one of them, but it played very different, and I think it’s a fair test no matter what the conditions are. If you hit the right shots and put it in the right place, you have a chance to score, and that’s what I did today.”
Defending champion Bubba Watson, trying to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament wins (four), birdied the first five holes on the back nine to get within three of the lead, but bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18 after hitting into bunkers gave him 66-136 and tie for 36th.
No. 1-ranked Brooks Koepka, one of Watson’s playing partners, needed to rally from an opening 71 and a tie for 112th to make the cut and did exactly that. After he bogeyed No. 1, he had five birdies in the next seven holes in an outward 31. Nine pars on the back nine gave Koepka a 66 for 137 and a tie for 47th.
TOUGH DAY TOGETHER
Mickelson, Spieth and 2012 champion Marc Leishman were arguably THE marquee group in the best field since Travelers became title sponsor in 2007. Leishman shot 136 and is tied for 36th, but Mickelson and Spieth won’t be around for the weekend. Sixteen of the top 29 in the Official World Golf Rankings entered the tournament, and Mickelson, Spieth and Tony Finau (142) were the only three not to qualify for the final 36 holes.
Mickelson shot 67 and was tied for 24th after the first round of his first tournament appearance in 16 years, but his first drive off the 10th tee hit a cart path, went out of bounds and led to a double-bogey 6.
“The same thing happened in the Memorial Tournament,” Mickelson said, shaking his head. “I was in contention after the first round, and first shot in second round hits the cart path on No. 10 and goes out of bounds. Same thing here.”
Mickelson three-putted the par-3 11th hole and then hit his second shot into the water and made bogey 6 at No. 13. At the par-3 16th, he hit his tee shot to 6 feet and promptly three-putted for bogey, then hit his second shot at No. 17 into the water and made another double-bogey 6. A 6-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole gave him a back-nine, 6-over 41, 11 strokes higher than Sucher.
Nine pars on the front gave Mickelson a 76 for 143, but the damage had long since been done for the only back-to-back winner since the tournament began in 1952 as the Insurance Open at Wethersfield Country Club.
“I’m really surprised and a little disappointed because I really felt my game was coming around,” said Mickelson, who tied for 52nd in the U.S. Open in his latest failed bid to become the sixth player to complete the Grand Slam at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. “This is a good course for my game, too. Just unfortunately didn’t put it together and had really rough nine holes.”
Mickelson said he thinks he will return next year because the PGA Tour changed its schedule to get the main season completed before the NFL and college football seasons start and Major League Baseball heads into the playoffs.
“I really like the course, and with the way the schedule is with it being difficult for me to play the weeks before majors, there’s a good chance I’ll start playing weeks after,” Mickelson said.
Now there’s music to the ears of Travelers and tournament officials.
Spieth, who won the tournament in 2017 via a 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole to beat Daniel Berger, had an opening 73 thanks largely to the 13th hole, where he hit his drive out of bounds and an approach into the water in making a triple-bogey 8. On Friday, he birdied two of his first six holes and was 3 under for the day and even par for the tournament after 12 holes, giving him a decent shot to advance to the weekend. But bogeys at the fifth and sixth holes ended his hopes of advancing.
“I was constantly thinking a little more than I wanted and then just didn’t play well,” said Spieth, who didn’t commit to the tournament until two weeks ago after waiting to see the shape of his game as it approached. “Just no parts of my game were where I wanted them to be. I feel like the last two weeks I had a monumental amount of lip-outs, so I still feel like my putting is good.
“The results from the other week (tie for 65th in the U.S. Open) were strictly putting and chipping. I still hit the ball below average for the field those weeks but just made up for. I just really need to improve on my ball striking. I started to drive the ball better last week and this week. I had an out of bounds that was a bummer yesterday, but take that one away and I drove the ball pretty well. My iron and wedge play is way below my normal standard, so that needs to significantly improve.”
Spieth said he’s going to take an unspecified amount of time off “to kind of get away from the game for a little reset and then try and finish the year strong.” Spieth is winless since the 2017 British Open that he dramatically rallied to win two weeks after his theatrics in Cromwell.
CONTINUED TOUGH TIMES FOR HENRY
Henry thoroughly enjoyed having 14-year-old son Connor caddie for him in pro-ams on Monday and Wednesday, but his game unfortunately continues to leave much to be desired. Henry, the only Connecticut player to the tournament in 2006 when it was the Buick Championship, birdied his last two holes, Nos. 8 and 9, for 72-142, but it was little consolation after four bogeys on the back nine all but assured he would miss his 11th cut in 16 starts this season.
“I didn’t hit it too bad, but I just couldn’t make any putts,” Henry said. “I three-putted the 12th, hit it in the water on No. 13 and missed two short putts. Birdying the last two holes was nice but also bitter sweet. … I actually feel as if I played pretty good, but I just don’t have the feel with the flat stick. But it is what it is, so I’ll go back to Fairfield for a few days, have some fun with my parents and kids and then get ready for next week (the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, Mich.).”
After finishing 152nd on the money list last year, Henry is playing on a one-year exemption for those who have made at least 300 cuts. He’ll have to improve dramatically down the stretch since he has won only $164,212.
The only New England player besides Bradley to make the cut was Richy Werenski (69-136). The other three New Englanders in the 156-man field were Peter Uihlein (70-146), Jim Renner (74-149) and Chris Tallman (76-154), winner of the Connecticut Section PGA Spring Stroke Play Championship that qualified him for this first PGA Tour event.
MIXED RESULTS FOR TOP AMATEURS
Travelers gave its four sponsors’ exemptions to the top-ranked amateurs in the country, two of whom were making their pro debuts (Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff) and two of whom had turned pro and played in PGA Tour events (Collin Morikawa and Justin Suh).
Morikawa, who has now made three straight cuts as a pro, led the way as he birdied No. 18 for his fourth birdie of the day and a 67, which put him in a tie for sixth at 133. He shot 8-under 272 to tie for 14th and earned $125,400 in the RBC Canadian Open and then shot 1-over 285 to tie for 35th in the U.S. Open and win $57,853.
“I think at the beginning of the week when I had that press conference with all the other guys, I just wanted to feel comfortable,” said Morikawa, a four-time All-American at the University of California, including a first-team selection in each of his final three seasons. “It’s crazy when I think back at the RBC Canadian Open that I was comfortable from the start. I think being out here for three weeks in a row has made things a lot easier. When I played the practice round Tuesday, I felt really good. Tee shots and approach shots into greens all kind of fit my eye. I’ve kind of just made my way, made birdies from start to finish and hopefully keep that up the new few days.”
Wolff, a teammate of Morikawa on Oklahoma State’s national championship last year, was 5 under with three holes to go. Despite a bogey at No. 7 and a double-bogey 6 at No. 9 after hitting his drive out of bounds, Wolff shot 68 to make the cut on the number. The 20-year-old from Agoura, Calif., won the NCAA individual title three weeks ago for his sixth victory of the season, a school record, and was named winner of the Jack Nicklaus National Player of the Year, received the Haskins Award at the most outstanding collegiate player in the United States and was a first-team All-American for both of his seasons at OSU.
Hovland, 21, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion who won the Ben Hogan Award that recognizes the top men’s college golfer while also factoring in amateur competitions, also just made the cut after shooting 71. A native of Oslo, Norway, Hovland is coming off a tie for 32nd in the U.S. Open after he tied for 12th in the Masters. He’s the first player since Matt Kuchar in 1998 to make the cut in those two majors in the same year. He and Kramer Hickok will tee off in the first group at 7:15 a.m.
Suh, who led the University of Southern California to the national championship in May, wasn’t nearly as proficient as his three buddies, shooting a pair of 73s to miss the cut by eight strokes. He also missed the cut in his pro debut in the Memorial Tournament.
SATURDAY JUNE 22 TEE TIMES: