CROMWELL, Conn. – The new “normal” Travelers Championship had tough acts to follow from recent years on Sunday.
Like Jordan Spieth holing an historic 61-foot bunker shot on the first playoff hole to defeat Daniel Berger in 2017. Like Harris English making a 16-foot birdie putt on the eighth extra hole to defeat Kramer Hickok and end the longest playoff in tournament history, and second longest in PGA Tour history, in 2021.
So with an unlimited number of fans allowed to traverse TPC River Highlands for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it was left to a handful of challengers to provide the drama again in Connecticut’s biggest sporting event played in 90-degree heat and gusting 15-20 mph winds down the stretch.
Xander Schauffele, who hadn’t won a PGA Tour individual title in more than 1,600 days, expanded a one-stroke lead starting the day to five shots early on the front nine and then had to overcome the extremely animated fast-closing Sahith Theegala for a two-stroke victory over Theegala (67) and J.T. Poston (64), a co-leader after an opening 62. Schauffele hit a 104-yard wedge shot to 3 feet on the 18th hole to set up a closing birdie, a 2-under-par 68 and a 72-hole total of 19-under 261 after Theegala had made a “double sandy” double bogey in front of him.
After his final stroke disappeared, Schauffele calmly exhaled, pumped his fists and maintained his usual reserved demeanor before celebrating his one-year anniversary with wife Maya with some of the record $1.494 million that he earned.
“On 18, my mind was telling me to hit a good drive and you’re going to have a sand wedge or lob wedge in there and a really good look at birdie with that pin kind of on a slope,” said Schauffele, 28, the 2020 Olympic gold medalist in Japan whose previous solo PGA Tour victory was in the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions. “And to sit there and watch sort of what happened was a bit of a shock obviously. I really had to try and focus on the task at hand.
“And sitting there waiting, sort of watching, not really knowing what’s going on, but kind of having an idea is a strange thing. So I was happy to just hit that tee shot straight down the fairway. … It feels really good. Everyone talks about how hard it is (to win), and I only had the Olympics to sort of fall back on having a lead and kind of closing it. I’ve never done it on the PGA Tour, so it was nice. I mean to do it in Japan and then sort of have that experience, I really tapped into that today.”
Theegala, shooting for his first PGA Tour win in his 38th start, drove the 291-yard, par-4 15th hole and two-putted and then made his fifth birdie of the day from 11 feet at No. 17 to move a shot ahead of Schauffele. But Theegala pulled his 277-yard drive into a fairway bunker at the 18th hole with his ball stopping near the lip. His second shot hit an embankment and ricocheted back into the sand. He pitched his third shot into the fairway and wedged to 12 feet but lipped out the putt for his only over-par number of the day and only the second double bogey that the field made on the hole.
“It’s just a perfect tee ball for me, just a high cut over the free,” Theegala said of the 18th. “I hit that a thousand times a year whenever there’s a tree in the way. I’ve been hitting that high fade really well all year, and just the way this course is, it allows me to really hit those low balls which I really like out here to keep it in the fairway. I hadn’t hit that high fade that much, but we talked about it yesterday because I missed the drive way right and I’m like ‘No, I got to trust it, it’s my bread and butter.
“I put a great swing on it, hit it right in the center (of the club) but just didn’t cut. Maybe it was adrenaline, squared the face a little sooner than normal. Then I knew it was going to be close to the lip but not that close. We were just trying to figure out what the best way was to make 4 was and try and force Xander to make birdie. I knew exactly where we stood but never in a million years did I think I would allow myself to blade it. All I had to do was chunk it. We even said this is a 50/50 ball in terms of I’ve got to try and just basically hit just a hair behind it. Somehow I just bladed it. I had room, but I just didn’t think I would let myself blade it. And then I had to try to make 5 and did the same thought process. I nearly bladed it again, but from there I hit a pretty good wedge shot. I thought I spun it a little more, but it came in a little lower than I wanted. I hit a perfect putt, but somehow it just broke left at the end and lipped out.”
Theegala dropped his putter and dropped to his knees in disbelief. Minutes later, he was officially a co-runner-up at 263.
“Obviously I know all the guys out here and how hard it is to win and how few opportunities there are to win,” said Theegala, who finished second in the Phoenix Waste Management in February. “That’s why something like this is really, really going to hurt but just going to grow from it. I feel like I’m plying really well, and if I just keep doing the same, keep loving the game. I love the process. I’ve never loved it more than I have now. So I’m just really excited to see if I can do it again, keep putting myself in these positions.”
Entering the Travelers Championship, Schauffele had five PGA Tour individual victories but only 17 Top-10 finishes since his last individual victory 3 1/2 years ago. He did win the gold medal in the 2020 Summer Olympics and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans with sixth-ranked Patrick Cantlay in April, but there had been frustration for most of the last three years. Schauffele and Cantlay, his playing partner the last two rounds, have been close friends since being paired together in the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia, and it figured to be a good shootout between two of the top-ranked players in the world.
A day after shooting 63 to move with a stroke of the lead, Cantlay had 10 holes of bogey or worse, his most in a PGA Tour event other than a major championship, in carding 76 that dropped him into a tie for 13th at 270. The 2021 FedExCup champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year had had only four bogeys in the first three rounds, but he made five on the front nine Sunday and later hooked his drive out of bounds on the 12th hole and made double-bogey 6. This on the course where he shot 60 in the second round of the 2011 Travelers Championship playing on a sponsors’ exemption that is still the lowest score by an amateur in PGA Tour history.
Another amateur, Michael Thorbjornsen of Wellesley, Mass., was another major story on Sunday. He hit a 261-yard second shot at the par-5 sixth that stopped inches from being a double eagle and then made four consecutive birdies, starting at No. 8, to get within a stroke of the lead. Errant drives led to bogeys on Nos. 12 and 13, but five closing pars gave him a closing 66 for 265 and fourth place, the best finish by an amateur in the 70-year history of the tournament.
Masters champion and No. 1-ranked Scottie Scheffler never really got untracked in shooting 70 for 270 and a tie for 13th. No 2 Rory McIlroy, who led after 36 holes, closed with 67 for 271 and a tie for 19th. Harris English, attempting to join Phil Mickelson (2001-02) as the only repeat champion, shot 71 and also tied for 19th.
But they were also-rans to Schauffler, who was late for his warmup before the first round on Thursday.
“My wife tells me I’m the worst multi-tasker on the planet, so that usually bodes well if you can only focus on one thing,” Schauffler said. “I think in the past when I had 54-hole leads or was close to the lead my Sundays feel really fast. And I’d be kind of sitting back in the hotel or at a house on Sunday sort of thinking, what happened today? So this I really wanted to stay present and really just focus on the task at hand, which was each and every shot. And I told (caddie) Austin to hold me accountable on the first hole walking up there, and he did a really great job and both of us were pretty much dialed in from the first hole.
“I really think this was, in a small way, a big win for me mentally. Just because I sort of had to check myself, you know what I mean? When you’ve been out here and things are going easy you just expect to play well all the time. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back, and I thought I did that this week. Like I said, I don’t know if that’s the reason I won, but it definitely made me feel more comfortable and helped my process throughout the week.”
Another feel-good story was Morgan Hoffmann, who is fighting facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy and finished at 282 in his third and final tournament of the year on a three-event medical exemption. The 32-year-old, who took several years off from the PGA Tour to focus on his health, shot a 71, ending his morning with a birdie after hitting his approach at the 18th hole to less than 2 feet. Hoffman, a New Jersey native now living in Costa Rica, said he’s hoping to get a few sponsors’ exemptions this summer and is cherishing the golf while trying to inspire others by staying healthy.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, cleansing monthly, eating nourishing food and working out hard and keep gaining muscle, and in the meantime I’m building a wellness center (in Costa Rica) to help other people do the same,” he said.