CROMWELL, Conn. – In his 13th season on the PGA TOUR, the courses on which Bubba Watson consistently contends are fairly well-established.
Riviera (three wins, including this year at the Genesis Open).
Augusta National (two wins).
TPC River Highlands (two wins, including his first on TOUR in 2010).
That’s seven of his 11 career TOUR victories, and no one would be surprised if he reaches a dozen by the end of this week’s Travelers Championship.
Watson won’t go into the weekend with the lead – that belongs to Brian Harman, who is 10 under and has a one-shot advantage over Zach Johnson, Russell Henley and Matt Jones – but after his 63 on Friday left him within striking distance at 7 under, Bubba’s shadow will loom large once the leaders tee off Saturday afternoon. His score tied Lanto Griffin’s for the low round of the day.
“You have confidence around the golf course,” Watson said. “For me, around here, I love it.”
The numbers back him up. Entering this week, he was a collective 94 under par in his Travelers career, best of any player in that span. Since 2008, when he made his first cut, he had posted 181 birdies, most of any player in that span. And his career scoring average of 67.65 ranks second to Paul Casey’s 67.25. Not surprisingly, Casey is also in the mix this week, in a tie for fifth at 8 under.
From Watson’s perspective, not only does the course suit his game, he also feeds off the energy of the crowd. He noted the large gallery around the drivable par-4 15th hole – his sixth of the day – early Friday. Watson birdied that hole, one of six on his scorecard along with an eagle at the par-5 13th.
“Add it up and you always feel like you have a chance around this place,” said Watson, who hit 16 of 18 greens Friday. “That’s how I feel.”
That makes last year’s result an anomaly, as he opened with a 75 and missed the cut. An even-par 70 to start this week wasn’t encouraging, either, as he suffered three bogeys on the back nine. Watson chalked that up to a lack of mental focus.
“I was just thinking about some negative stuff instead of focusing on my target and focusing on the shot at hand,” he said. “… Just things that you can’t do around the golf course.”
There have been few negatives for Watson at TPC River Highlands in his career. Given his performance Friday, there may not be any this weekend either.
Brian Harman has seven top-10 finishes this season, tied for second with Patrick Reed and Justin Rose. Only Dustin Johnson has more (8). Harman’s in good shape to add to that total after his 4-under 66 vaulted him into the lead. He credited his consistency to “driving the ball much better than I have in years’ past. I signed a new club contract this year, which I think has helped.” Harman switched to Titleist equipment.
Matt Jones has not won in seven visits to TPC River Highlands. His caddie, Bradley Whittle, however, has been on the bag for two winners – David Frost in 1994 and Russell Knox in 2016. Jones, just a stroke off the lead after his 66, has a chance to give Whittle a third win this week. “I’m sure he’s got some good memories,” Jones said. “We’ll look forward to the weekend.”
Russell Henley missed just two greens in the first round. He was even better on Friday – a perfect 18 for 18 en route to shooting a 65 for a share of second. “I felt like I hit it in the right spots all day,” Henley said. “It was kind of a stress-free round.”
Bryson DeChambeau lost his swing for a brief period Friday. It happened on the 12th hole (bogey), when he nearly hooked his tee shot out of bounds, and continued to the par-5 13th (double bogey) when he twice found the water. “I just got that right arm going more and it internally rotated position, which is going to close the club face,” DeChambeau said. “Then I tried to correct it on the next swing at 13, and it went right. So now I’m in big trouble.” The key thing, though, was he didn’t panic. He eventually solved the issue, made birdies at 15 and 16 and shot his second consecutive 66 to finish at 8 under.
It was a tale of two par 5s for defending champ Jordan Spieth. The first-round co-leader tripled the 13th, which has always been a nemesis tee shot for him. It was again Friday when he hit his tee shot out of bounds left, hit his provisional to the fairway, then saw his approach land in the water left of the green. “I get on the tee and for whatever reason, I struggle,” Spieth said. He then struggled to make up strokes until the sixth, which he eagled for the second consecutive day. This time, it was after his second shot landed inside 2 feet. “I hit two shots exactly where I was looking,” Spieth said. His 3-over 73 leaves him at 4 under.
In addition to missing the cut by a stroke at last week’s U.S. Open, Lanto Griffin also suffered a shin injury that’s forced him to limp around for the last few days. It didn’t bother him Friday, though, as he shot a 63, the lowest score of his rookie season. It allowed him to easily make the cut at 7 under after missing the cut in 13 of his first 18 starts. “I’ve been icing it a couple hours every night, and I’ll get to do that again tonight,” Griffin said of his shin. “I’ll keep my mind off of the tournament.”
QUOTABLESI don’t go to the range after 63s very often, and I was there for an hour yesterday trying to figure out the golf swing.I felt like mentally I was pretty good. You sort of need to do that when you don’t have your best stuff.
Low round: 7-under 63s by two-time Travelers winner Bubba Watson and Lanto Griffin
Longest drive: Tom Lovelady’s 368-yard drive on the 18th hole. Lovelady made par on the hole en route to a 3-under 67.
Longest putt: Joel Dahmen’s 54-foot, 2-inch putt on the par-4 first for birdie. Dahmen shot 1-under 69 on Friday.
Hardest hole: The 411-yard par-4 12th, which played to a stroke average of 4.212. Just 13 birdies were made against 28 bogeys, three doubles and four others.
Easiest hole: The 523-yard par-5 13th, which played to a stroke average of 4.731. Seven eagles and 60 birdies were made against 18 bogeys, four doubles and two others.
CALL OF THE DAY
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SHOT OF THE DAY
Shot of the Day
Jordan Spieth's approach sets up eagle for Shot of the Day