TRAVELERS CHAMPIONSHIP: The PGA Tour’s traveling birdiefest heads north this week, where the players will take aim at another shortish course that has yielded some low numbers in recent years: TPC River Highlands, which has played host to this event since 1984. That means there will be plenty of guys in the field with loads of course knowledge and a lengthy record here, and considering the fact that 9 of the top 10 players in the world will be in attendance this week, I think it’s safe to assume that we’ll see lots of red numbers and a high-quality leaderboard.
As was the case with the RBC Heritage last week, which had its turn in the sun after decades spent in the post-Masters shade, this is a unique opportunity for this tournament, as it is traditionally held the week after the U.S. Open and is therefore regarded as somewhat of an afterthought– passed over by the top players and largely used as a “tune-up” event for the top guys who do come.
But this year, the Travelers has the spotlight all to itself. Though River Highlands is somewhat unremarkable compared to some of the other stops on Tour, it has produced some thrilling finishes over the years, and as Jim Furyk memorably showed with his 58 back in 2016, it’s a course where guys can get crazy-hot. It’s also a place where different styles of golf can flourish– grinders like Chez Reavie and Russell Knox have won here in recent years, but the longer players have also had considerable success, most notably Bubba Watson, who hoisted the trophy for the third time in 2018. Given the nature of the course combined with the caliber of the field, I think we can expect an exciting weekend.
Though it’s been great to have the golf back these past two weeks, it’s been a bit frustrating on the personal side, as we were a week early with Webb Simpson and then watched as Sungjae Im missed his first cut in 15 starts. Let’s hope these three can help get us back to our pre-COVID form:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Xander Schauffele (33.0)– Despite nine top-25 finishes in 11 PGA Tour starts this season, including a pair of runner-ups and a 3rd-place showing at the Charles Schwab two weeks ago, Schauffele is still not getting quite the respect in the market that I believe he deserves. After finishing just one shot out of a playoff at Colonial he started slowly last week and was never in contention, but he did shoot 66 on both Friday and Sunday, so the magic is still there. He’s played this event twice and had success back in 2017, finishing 14th, so he certainly knows his way around River Highlands, and he’s come a long way as a player since the last time he was here, two years ago. Schauffele counts the Tour Championship and the WGC-HSBC Champions among his four wins, demonstrating an ability to conquer the very best fields, so he’ll be in his element this week. He’s an elite player who offers real value here at better than 30/1.
Viktor Hovland (54.0)- Hovland seemed primed for a big year after his victory at the Puerto Rico Open back in February, and since the lockdown ended he’s resumed his solid ways, finding the top-25 at both Colonial and Harbour Town. And there are signs that bigger things are just ahead– he opened with a 65 last week and closed with a 66, and he’s been absolutely striping the ball lately, ranking No. 1 in this field in Strokes Gained- Ballstriking over the last 50 rounds (h/t Fantasy National). He made the cut here last year in what was his first career professional event, and now that he’s more than acclimated to the pro game, I expect him to have no trouble with the straightforward River Highlands layout. Hovland is a rising star who has a legit chance to win this week– at 54.0, he’s my favorite bet on the board.
Brian Harman (76.0)- We were on Harman at a slightly bigger price last week, and though he didn’t quite get the job done, he did play well, closing with a 65 to sneak into the top-30, so we’ve decided to get back on the horse this week. That’s mostly because of his record in this event, which includes three top-10 finishes and 8 made cuts in 9 career starts. Harman is dangerous around River Highlands, as he is most places where his lack of distance isn’t much of a handicap. His putting stats have been tremendous over the past couple of weeks– he’s now up to 11th on Tour in overall putting average and 14th in one-putt percentage– so if it comes down to a putting contest this weekend, Harman will have as good a chance as anyone. This is the type of course where he can contend, and he knows it, which is why he comes back every year. I’m happy to take a chance on him at a price like 76.0.