TRAVELERS CHAMPIONSHIP: With the week-after-major hangover in full effect, the PGA Tour makes its annual stop in central Connecticut this week for the Travelers Championship, an event that has quietly grown in prestige in recent years despite its awkward place on the schedule. While the bigger names often rest the week following a major, this year’s Travelers Championship has drawn the likes of Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and last week’s champion, Brooks Koepka. It was a similar story last year, when Spieth outlasted a surprisingly strong field and nipped Daniel Berger in a playoff to take home the trophy.
The exact reasons for this tournament’s newfound popularity are difficult to pin down, as the purse is modest by Tour standards and the course, TPC River Highlands, is unremarkable. But players seem to enjoy the atmosphere– many have said it resembles the folksy, down-home feel of tournaments like the RBC Heritage and RSM Classic, and it’s the second-most attended event on the PGA Tour, behind only the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
TPC River Highlands is a Pete Dye design that measures just over 6,800 yards and forces the players to hit their tee shots in the same spot on many holes, negating much of the advantage that the longer players normally have. Though Bubba Watson has had considerable success in this event, winning twice, the list of other players who have won here since 2012– Spieth, Russell Knox, Kevin Streelman, and Ken Duke– should tell you that length off the tee is not a prerequisite for success at River Highlands. Instead, it’s accuracy off the tee and precision with the short irons, as most of the par-4s will be attacked with 9-irons and wedges, but the knobby greens and difficult pin placements can make things trickier that you might expect.
Indeed, this tournament is not always a birdie-fest– 12-under played-off last year, and the winning score has been between 12 and 16-under in each of the past six stagings. Nobody will mistake River Highlands for Shinnecock, but it’s not TPC Deere Run, either. The thick bentgrass rough keeps the players honest, and the urge to attack pins with wedges can sometimes backfire, as short-siding yourself is a sure recipe for disaster on this course. Patient, steady types who are great with the wedges and can get hot with the putter– that’s who we’re looking for this week.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Rory McIlroy (19.0)- I think people are sleeping on McIlroy a bit this week, and that’s perfectly understandable after his opening-round 80 that led to a missed cut in last week’s U.S. Open. But let’s not overreact here: unlike, say, Jordan Spieth, Rory is not in the midst of some prolonged slump– remember, in his two starts prior to the Open he finished 8th at The Memorial and runner-up at the BMW PGA– and Thursday at Shinnecock was an absolute meat-grinder that shouldn’t be a measuring stick for any player. Besides, the way McIlroy finished on Friday, shooting 4-under 31 on the back nine, had to leave a good taste in his mouth, and you just get the feeling that he may be putting too much pressure on himself in the bigger events and might be in a better frame of mind this week. He’s one of the best in the world tee-to-green, nobody would dispute that, and if you look at his recent stats you’ll see that his short-iron and wedge play has been particularly strong lately. He debuted here last year, finishing 17th after a Sunday 64, so he should have a good feel for the course and how to attack it, and he’ll be rested and motivated after last week’s disappointment. I’m happy to take a chance on him at nearly 20/1.
Ryan Moore (49.0)- Moore’s record in this event is tremendous: eight made cuts in nine career appearances, six finishes of 17th or better, three top-5s, and a runner-up in 2011. His two worst finishes, a missed cut and a T47, came in 2008 and 2012, respectively. In other words, you won’t find a much safer bet than Moore at TPC River Highlands, and though he has yet to break through with a win, I certainly wouldn’t put it past him considering he’s notched five PGA Tour victories and comes into this week on a bit of a roll, with six top-30 finishes in his past seven starts. Earlier this week he said of River Highlands, “I think overall the course fits my eye really well. The tee shots and second shots into the greens, I’m very comfortable with them.” With his record here, I believe I’ll take him at his word.
Anirban Lahiri (188.0)- Lahiri hasn’t done anything remarkable this year, finding the top-10 just twice in 12 PGA Tour starts, but he comes into this week on the heels of three straight made cuts, so his game is largely in order. He always seems to excel on “wedge-fest” courses where length isn’t really a priority– courses like TPC River Highlands, in other words– and his debut appearance in this event last year, when he tied for 17th, was encouraging in ways that stretch beyond the obvious. For one, it came in the middle of a stretch of five missed cuts in seven starts, which suggests that Lahiri can excel at River Highlands even when his form is shaky. It also featured a second-round 63, the lowest round of Lahiri’s PGA Tour career, and if he’s going to shock the world and win this week, he’s going to need some of that low-number magic. I think we may have a hidden gem here, a player who has a legitimate chance to contend despite his outlandish price.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Jason Day (1.95) vs. Patrick Reed (1.89)
Day seemed primed for a big summer after his win at the Wells Fargo and 5th-place showing at The Players, but he finished a disappointing 44th at The Memorial and missed the cut at last week’s U.S. Open, making him a bit of a wild card this week (he also missed the cut in this tournament last year). Reed, on the other hand, has been red-hot since his Masters triumph, finding the top-10 three times in his past five starts and making a Sunday charge at Shinnecock last week before settling for solo 4th. He finished 5th in this event last year, so he obviously likes TPC River Highlands, and I’d be surprised if he’s not in the mix again this weekend. Recommendation: Reed at 1.89
Marc Leishman (1.91) vs. Bryson DeChambeau (1.91)
DeChambeau is hot: in his last eight starts he has four top-4 finishes, including a win at The Memorial three weeks ago, and he was solid at Shinnecock last week, finishing 25th. He’s also made the cut in both of his appearances at this event, though his best finish is T26, and if we’re comparing him to Leishman… well, there’s no comparison, honestly. Leishman has been absolutely brilliant in six previous starts here, winning once (2012), never missing the cut, and finishing 17th or better four times. He may not be quite as hot as DeChambeau, but he did finish runner-up at the Byron Nelson just three starts ago, so we know his “A-game” isn’t too far off. It’s tough to bet against DeChambeau considering the roll he’s on now, but it’s even tougher to turn your back on Leishman at TPC River Highlands. Recommendation: Leishman at 1.91