So Jimmy Walker grabbed his 6th Tour title in less than 36 months - and by far the biggest win of his career - when he landed the PGA Championship at a wet Baltusrol Golf Club over the weekend. Walker's 2016 had been disappointing up until a form-finding 14th at the RBC Canadian Open and he made no mistakes in New Jersey where he led all the way following a favourable tee time split. A very strong performance which will see Jimmy representing the United States in the Ryder Cup this autumn.
On to this week and the Travelers Championship has always been a well supported event on the PGA Tour with huge crowds and a 'big tournament' feel in Cromwell, Connecticut. 2016 sees a strong field with the betting market headed by defending champion Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka, Branden Grace, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed and Zach Johnson.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Paul Lawrie Match Play - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Guide: TPC at River Highlands is a stock 'up-state' par 70 which will present a totally different challenge to what we saw at Baltusrol last week. At 6,841 yards the course is attackable and gives all styles of play a chance of victory. Bubba Watson averaged 320 yards off the tee across his two victories here whilst Kevin Streelman, Ken Duke and Freddie Jacobson plotted and putted their ways to victory. However River Highlands has seen significant changes in the past 13 months with 50 bunkers removed and the remaining bunkers being upgraded and in many cases moved to create fairway pinch points. 5 greens on the inward set have also been re-done to present new hole locations. All in all though, River Highlands will still play as a resort course where making birdies and putting extremely well will be key on Bent/Poa mix greens that aren't overly taxing. Birdies and minimising mistakes will be the name of the game.
TPC at River Highlands, Cromwell, Connecticut: Designer Robert J. Ross 1928 with Pete Dye (1982) and Bobby Weed (1989) renovations; Course Type: Resort; Par: 70; Length: 6,841 yards; Water Hazards: 5; Fairways: Bentgrass with poa annua; Rough: Kentucky Bluegrass with Perennial Rye 3.5"; Greens: 5,500 sq.ft average featuring Bentgrass with poa annua; Tournament Stimp: 10.5ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 69.84 (-0.16), Difficulty Rank 26 of 49 courses. 2013: 70.25 (+0.25), Difficulty Rank 20 of 43 courses. 2014: 69.69 (-0.31), Rank 32 of 48 courses: 2015: 69.38 (-0.62), Rank 29 of 52 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for TPC River Highlands and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on Tour:
Course Overview: TPC River Highlands is a traditional eastern parkland golf course that features little water. The short format allows for a greater degree of accuracy off the tee to fairways which aren't difficult to hit for players who focus on course management. At an average of 5,500 square feet the green complexes are a typical short par 70 affair, but the key to the course is that the Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix surfaces run at a receptive 10.5 on the Stimpmeter. River Highlands is a second-shot course where accurate approach play is key. Accurate drivers and plotters tend to prosper, but here more than anywhere a red-hot putter will be required to deliver a minimum 20 birdies required for victory.
No course statistics really jump off from the page - River Highlands really is pretty stock across the piece, apart from the fact that scrambling from the rough is particularly difficult for those missing greens. This tournament though tends to be won on the par 4s. The course was in the top-10 easiest on the PGA Tour for par-4 birdie or better conversion last term with Bubba shooting a best in the field -12 across them.
Winners: 2015: Bubba Watson (-16); 2014: Kevin Streelman (-15); 2013: Ken Duke (-12); 2012: Marc Leishman (-14); 2011: Freddie Jacobson (-20); 2010: Bubba Watson (-14); 2009: Kenny Perry (-22).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week which are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Travelers predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Matt Kuchar (Predictor Number 1) Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson and Brooks Koepka.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10 tournament window that stretches back to Colonial/Wentworth and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2015: Watson 14/1; 2014: Streelman 150/1; 2013: Duke 150/1; 2012: Leishman 125/1; 2011: Jacobson 45/1; 2010: Watson 40/1; 2009: Perry 20/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Cromwell is here. 29mm of rain since Friday will make this a soft test of golf from the outset with the likelihood of a top-up on Saturday. Temperatures will reach up to 30 degrees Celsius with strengthening afternoon breezes up to 15 mph throughout the tournament.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 6 winners of the Travelers since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how TPC River Highlands has set up in the past and what specific skills it requires:
Paul Casey: "This is a golf course where the green is relatively small, but they're tucking the pins away and putting them on some funky little slopes. If you short side yourself, especially if you get over these greens, you're going to be in a world of hurt. I'm a guy that hits a lot of greens in regulation. I'm pretty aggressive when going with the irons into the greens. I try to give myself a lot of birdie looks. To me, as a player, I love playing these kinds of events where you can go low. I think it's good for the psyche. If all you ever do is play events where level par is winning score, you feel like you get beaten up, and you've got to have these, because every now and then you've got to go really low. It is fun. You can't get the wrong side of it. With a golf course like this, it's not that easy. I think the scores are reflective in the fact that we've got perfect conditions and perfect greens. If you get to the wrong side of it, you can make bogeys very easily out there."
Bubba Watson: "First hole is going to be a wedge; second hole, wedge; third hole, wedge. These are the approach shots. And then next hole is going to be...it'll change, but 8, 9 or wedge; next hole is a 6‑iron to a 5‑iron; next hole is a 3‑iron, going for it in two; next hole is a wedge; next hole is an 8‑iron; next hole is a wedge; next hole is a wedge; next hole is a wedge; next hole is a wedge; next hole is going for it in two; next hole is a wedge; next hole is a wedge, or if you drive the green you can putt; next hole is a 9 or an 8; 17 is a 9 or a wedge; and 18 is a wedge. So when you look at that, why would I not want to play here if I'm hitting that many wedges? It doesn't matter if I'm in the rough or not, those are the clubs I'm hitting. It comes down to me putting; if I can putt halfway decent, I have a chance to top 10 here or scare a victory."
Marc Leishman: "I think it's a fun golf course. If you're playing well, you can make a lot of birdies. If you're not playing well, you can make bogeys. But I think this is a fun golf course because there are birdies out there. If you're willing to take it on, you can have a low score. But at the same time, if you do take it on, you're bringing in that big number into it as well. I think that's a good indication of a good golf course. I think this is one of them."
Hunter Mahan: "This is a fun golf course to play and it has a great last four holes, so I'm excited. When you come here, it's not quite as intense (as a US Open) going into the tournament. You're a little more, I don't know, almost fluid and you're just kind of more relaxed and you're just kind of ready to play and this course is, you know, set up to make birdies. But it's also set up to challenge you, if the conditions are the way they are, soft and a little windy, it's not pitch and putt by my means, but you're just not going to be penalized for hitting a bad shot. You can still play the hole and get a birdie and be successful on it. It's just not quite as strenuous on the mind."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 6 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
For the record, here's the breakdown of Poa Annua and Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
Up until this point, the Travelers Championship has been the post-US Open stop off. Now of course in this year of the Olympics it's the post-PGA Championship tournament. Being positioned after a gruelling Major Championship in itself starts to answer the question as to why so many Tour maidens win here. Going back to J.J. Henry in 2006, no player has finished inside of the United States Open Championship top 10 and then gone on to win here in Connecticut. That's a considerable length of time and makes logical sense as converting a birdie on every 1 in 3 holes is extremely alien compared to the traumas of a US Open test. The same 'Major malaise' can be seen at the Wyndham Championship - the traditional PGA Tour event after the PGA Championship. In 2007 Brandt Snedeker finished 18th at Southern Hills prior to winning at Forest Oaks, but since then no winner has either played at or done well at the PGA Championship.
The mix of recent winners here is interesting. Leishman and Watson are creative shot-shapers who blasted their way to victory whereas Streelman, Duke, Jacobson and Perry were far more accurate from the tee. Greens in regulation over the past 5 renewals has become of secondary importance to high quality birdie making powered by high class putting. All 6 of these winners sat in the top 17 for putting average across the week with a sub-1.7 Putts per GIR looking an essential target for victory.
Bookmaker Offers. A couple of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week plus there are a couple of other offers out there:
My selections are as follows:
I always look towards Webb Simpson on shorter, more scoreable tracks. Take a soft Colonial in May where Spieth won at -17/263 and Webb's putter fired to land 4th spot on -13/267. 12th in Strokes Gained Tee to Green, 11th in Strokes Gained Approaching the Green, 15th in Proximity to Hole, 14th in par-4 Birdie or Better Conversion and 151st in Strokes Gained Putting, it's clear that Simpson's lack of a win since 2013 has been solely down to the removal of the belly putter. But of late there have been signs of a definite improvement with the putter and Webb sits 51st in Putting Average compared to 148th in 2014/15. Simpson hasn't played The Travelers since 2013 - when he finished 5th - but he's 6/6 in terms of weekends made on his visits and has shot 65 on 4 occasions. He has won in Massachusetts at TPC Boston and it's interesting that all 4 of his wins have been on Bentgrass surfaces with his non US Open titles coming at -18/262, -15/269 and -24/260. RESULT: T34
J.B. Holmes was one of the quietly fancied pre-event runners at Baltusrol, but that interest came to nothing as an opening round 75 did for the Kentuckian who missed the cut at +4. Holmes was undoubtedly on the wrong side of the draw and his errant driving where he only found 4 of 14 fairways finally caught up with him. However a much stronger 69 on Friday which featured 9/14 fairways and 13/18 greens in regulation means that the World Number 19 takes some momentum forward to TPC River Highlands - a course where Holmes has had a level of success from only 4 outings. Three pay cheques from 4 appearances doesn't shout marriage made in heaven, but his last appearance in 2012 saw J.B. shoot a cracking 62 in Round 2, catapulting him into second place, before finishing 37th. 2012 was a relatively poor year for Holmes who never finished in the top 10 after Houston but 6th at Torrey Pines, 6th at TPC Scottsdale, 4th at Augusta, 4th at Muirfield and 3rd at Royal Troon this season sees the Florida resident right in the mix for a Ryder Cup spot. Those results, plus a win at Houston (2015) and some strong finishes at Riviera, tie up rather nicely with Bubba Watson who we know loves River Highlands. J.B. is comfortable with poa annua, is fantastic with a wedge in hand and his excellent putting and par-4 birdie or better conversion numbers in 2016 give him a live chance this week in Connecticut. RESULT: MC
Martin Laird has always been a streaky scorer and a real confidence player. He can go long periods with poor results, then he finds his key ball-striking attribute, the confidence builds and the results come. He hit plenty of greens at Congressional to finish 21st, gave us a run for our money at Montreux before inevitably finishing 7th and then topped Greens in Regulation at Glen Abbey, finishing 2nd - guaranteeing his 2016/17 PGA Tour card into the bargain. Sure enough the putter has started to warm recently and like plenty of others he missed his chances on 18 at Glen Abbey, gifting the title to Jhonattan Vegas. However I'm drawn to Laird again this week as he likes Bentgrass poa annua putting surfaces and results across Ridgewood (7th 2008, 2nd 2010) and Sedgefield (4th 2008, 14th 2014) highlight a player who naturally likes Ross-type designs. His good form can carry over a number of tournaments and he was 15th here last year whilst in a results slump. He finished that week 2nd in Putting Average and 6th in Strokes Gained Putting. RESULT: T62
Experience seems to count for a lot at the Travelers Championship with knowledgeable pros winning in the main. Accumulating scores with the minimum of mistakes is never easy and River Highlands is undoubtedly a second shot course where a warm putter is essential. John Senden is a bit of a wizard with a wedge in his hand, plays well in the wind and he's been putting well for a long period of time. 5 of his last 6 rounds have been better than par and 18th last week at the PGA was a strong effort. A winner of the birdie fest which is the John Deere Classic in 2006, the Texas-based Australian tends to play his best golf on shorter tests and he's a streaky scorer as strong finishes at Deere Run, PGA West and the CIMB Classic indicate well. 28th in Strokes Gained Putting, 47th in Birdie Average and 20th in par-4 birdie or better conversion are excellent numbers for River Highlands and the short nature of the course will allow the 45 year-old Australian more looks than standard with wedge in hand. RESULT: T56