The PGA TOUR season has reached an unofficial halfway point and the Americans have taken a step in the right direction to get back to respectable standings in the World Golf Rankings during this important Ryder Cup year. Congratulations to Webb Simpson for winning last week at Olympic Club for the US Open. His win means that the last three majors have been won by Americans (Keegan, Bubba). But it’s also a welcome trend on the PGA TOUR: 15 of the 22 events leading up to the U.S. Open last week were won by players already inside the top 50 in the world rankings. Of those 15 wins, 13 were by American players. More impressively, Americans won the first nine events this year until Rory McIlroy won the Honda Classic. The last time a streak of American wins was that long? 1991, when Ian Woosnam ended a streak of 11 consecutive American wins with a victory in New Orleans.
The Travelers Championship is played on a wonderful TPC River Highlands layout that doesn’t produce the typical TPC winners. It’s a course that can reward and punish, but it allows the shorter hitter a chance with good course management. Brad Faxon and Woody Austin won here in 2004 and 2005, respectively; Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank were runner-ups in 2010; and Fredrik Jacobson defends. Freddy ranks 106th on Tour in distance. Meanwhile, Bubba, Hunter Mahan, Phil Mickelson, and solid iron players like Peter Jacobsen and JJ Henry have claimed victory here also. It offers everyone a chance and conditions are vital to results.
Whether it’s because this event usually comes at a time in the year when top players are recovering from major championship stress, or that young players catch their groove after a few months of experience, first-time winners come in bundles here lately. Four of the last six winners won their first PGA TOUR event here (all in the field - Bubba, Mahan, Jacobson, and Henry). Those are four of seven past champions in the field.
As we’ve become accustomed in the past few months, this is another par-70 layout with just two par-5's. This is the fifth such course, including Olympic Club, in the last six weeks. Of those events, Jason Dufner has by far the best record… but he is not in the field this week.
There’s a chance of afternoon showers here on the weekend which could change the game plan. On paper, it’s a 6,800 yard par-70 layout. Pete Dye came in and redesigned the course in 1998 with Bobby Weed, and since the tournament has continued to produce winners who have won majors, while drawing fantastic fields. The event moved to TPC River Highlands in 1991.
So why do so many varieties of players contend at TPC River Highlands? It’s fifth on Tour in easiest fairways to hit - although they are also narrow. The fairways are only 27’11’’ wide on average, which ranks as the third smallest width on Tour. For a course that is only 6,800 yards, there must be an equalizer. And here it’s water. Of all the treacherous TPC courses, this one ranks third on Tour (to TPC Sawgrass and TPC Southwind) in balls into the water from stats recorded from 2003 to 2011. Avoiding the water is simply a product of good ball-striking and missing in the right place. These features are important to a top player. Additionally, the finishing holes are risk/reward holes where a longer player can have a big advantage, but only if he is able to hit his best shots with the added pressure of water and the possibility of long bunker shots.
- Blake Adams. Look out for Blake, a guy who always hits a fade. His finishes this year have been steady - contending at the biggest and best events. His t12 at the Players and t21 at last weeks US Open were promising. But to qualify for the British Open, he’ll need a high finish this week. That added incentive should give him the kick in the butt he needs to crack into the winner’s circle.
- Bud Cauley played well here last year and has had some time off. It might spur the youngster to match his former Walker Cup member, Simpson, this week. His finish in 2011: t24. His worst round was 69 and he will have good memories since the next week he finished t4. Everyone remembers how they got to the top!
- Padraig Harrington. Game is coming around with three top-15 finishes in his last three starts. Despite a few loose shots down the stretch in the US Open, he nearly got the third leg of the career grand slam.
- Michael Thompson. After a t2 in the U.S. Open, he should be ready to go. Will he be tired after the week at Olympic, or will he carry over the great play and give himself a chance to take his career to the next level? I think the latter. Higher pressure situations tend to bring everything else down in importance. That free-wheeling nature should suffice.
- Seung-Yul Noh. Control player due for a big week. He’s played a ridiculous 18 events so far this year and has been top-5 in two of his last five starts. Shout-out to whoever was asking me about him before the FedEx St. Jude Classic on Twitter. I said I was skeptical of a great week, but a fan. He finished t7 that week.
Other Players and Field Notes
Zach Johnson tends to play well at courses that don’t have water, or very little. Despite that fact, he’s still playing great golf and has a hot putter. The SeeMore is looking for a second win in 2012, and I'm giving a nod that his impressive performance at Colonial is still carrying over for him. With confidence, he's as good as it gets with the short game and short irons.
Fred Jacobson is defending champ and also coming off a nice week in the U.S. Open. He’s been moving into his summer slowly, so his body should be ready for the pressure and travel.
Three ball strikers who are looking for win #1 and have played well on similar tracks this year? Harris English, Chris Stroud, Greg Chalmers.
Bubba Watson is rusty. Statistically he is best on Tour in several categories, including the most important at River Highlands: going for the green. I think the rust is still coming off.
Patrick Cantlay turns pro this week, which promises him plenty of distractions and adjustments. He holds the course record with a 60, so perhaps the past experience will calm him down. I think it will be a challenge for the young Cantlay this week, but I hope he proves me wrong.
Webb Simpson comes off his US Open field with the start. He should be happy to play and will be in good spirits. Just be sure to make sure he hasn't WD'd before pulling the trigger on him.
Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar round out the top players that will be a factor. Mahan is a past champion, looking for third win of the year on Tour.