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Congratulations to Brooks Koepka who captured his second consecutive US Open, becoming only the third person in history to defend the title and the first since Curtis Strange in 1988/89. He won at 25/1 and I know there were many of you on him judging by Social Media, so congratulations on grabbing yourself a Major Championship winner. Koepka has now won more Major Championships than PGA Tour titles which is some accolade. The way he came back from an opening +5/75 on Thursday took mental fortitude at a Shinnecock course which stretched the very best to their limits and beyond.
Onto 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. 2018 sees a strong field with the betting market headed by Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, defending champion Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Patrick Reed, Jason Day plus Bubba Watson, Paul Casey, Webb Simpson and Marc Leishman.
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Course Guide: TPC River Highlands is a stock ‘up-state’ par 70 which will present a totally different challenge to what we saw at Shinnecock Hills 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. Defending champion Jordan Spieth, Russell Knox, Kevin Streelman, Ken Duke and Freddie Jacobson plotted and putted their ways to victory. Recently River Highlands has seen significant changes since the 2015 renewal 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 rebuilt to present new hole locations. All in all though, River Highlands is a good mid-scoring, tree-lined course where making birdies and putting extremely well will be key on Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix greens that aren’t overly taxing. Birdies and minimising mistakes will be the name of the game.
TPC River Highlands, Cromwell, Connecticut: Designer Robert J. Moss 1928 with Pete Dye (1984), and PGA Tour (2016) renovations; Course Type: Resort; Par: 70; Length: 6,841 yards; Water Hazards: 5; Fairways: Bentgrass with poa annua; Rough: Kentucky Bluegrass with Perennial Rye 4″; Greens: 5,000 sq.ft average featuring Bentgrass with poa annua; Tournament Stimp: 12ft; 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. 2016: 69.67 (-0.33), Rank of 26 of 50 courses. 2017: 70.20 (+0.20), Rank 21 of 50 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for TPC River Highlands and how they compare to recent courses on Tour:
Course Designer Links: For research purposes, other Pete Dye designs include:
Course Overview: TPC River Highlands is a traditional north-eastern state parkland golf course that features little water. The short format calls 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 speed. River Highlands is a second-shot course where accurate approach play is key. Accurate drivers and plotters tend to prosper, although bombers can contend with Bubba Watson a prime example. 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 from off the page – River Highlands really is pretty stock across the piece, apart from the fact that scrambling from the rough is particularly difficult (8th & 4th hardest last 2 seasons) 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 in 2015, 14th easiest in 2017 and 18th easiest last term, highlighting that the tournament is won or lost on the 48 looks at the par-4s.
Below is a breakdown of player par-4 scoring at TPC River Highlands across the last 6 tournaments here. Finishing position in brackets:
Winners: 2017: Jordan Spieth (-12); 2016: Russell Knox (-14); 2015: Bubba Watson (-16); 2014: Kevin Streelman (-15); 2013: Ken Duke (-12); 2012: Marc Leishman (-14); 2011: Freddie Jacobson (-20); 2010: Bubba Watson (-14).
Tournament Stats: We’ve published some key player statistics for this week’s event that are well worth a look. Naturally they’ll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes. NEW! Combined Current and Course Form is now available here.
Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 10 of my published predictor are Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Brian Harman, Justin Thomas, Emiliano Grillo, Jordan Spieth, Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson and Kevin Streelman.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the RBC Heritage & Open de Espana and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2017: Spieth 10/1; 2016: Knox 50/1; 2015: Watson 14/1; 2014: Streelman 150/1; 2013: Duke 150/1; 2012: Leishman 125/1; 2011: Jacobson 45/1; 2010: Watson 40/1. Average: 73/1. Past 4 Renewals Average: 56/1. For a full summary of winner’s odds on the PGA Tour since 2010 click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Hartford, Connecticut, is here. We may see some faster greens and conditions than we are accustomed to at TPC River Highlands this week. It’s 50/50 whether the course gets a drenching over Wednesday night and into Thursday, but if it doesn’t it should play fairly fast, although don’t expect Shinnecock Hills! Light breeze looks a feature across the first 36-54 holes of play, with the potential for 15 mph gusts across the weekend. Temperatures will be 27-29 degrees Celsius on Thursday / Saturday, with the likelihood of warmer conditions on Sunday.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 8 winners of this event since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Let’s take a view from players as to how TPC River Highlands sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Jordan Spieth: “Yeah, I had no idea until we kind of got on the grounds and I saw Michael (Greller) on Tuesday before we played any holes, and he said, “This course is tailor made for you,” is what he said. I love the back nine. I think it’s a very exciting nine holes of golf, one of the coolest stretches that we play where anything can happen. So that’s good and bad when you’re leading. So again, yeah, I thought it was a really good golf course for us. You kind of manoeuvre the ball both ways. You’ve kind of got to watch out for – you’ve got some clearings where the wind affects it more than other times where you’re kind of in the valleys. But overall, poa annua greens, historically, aren’t my best, and so today was a big confidence boost. The rest of the golf course I really love. You’ve got to work both ball flights. You’ve got to kind of be fearless in playing different shots. You really have to. You can’t get out there and just step and hit just draws the whole day. It forces you to hit different shots. The greens are just tough.
Yeah, you’ve got to stay patient. You can’t force it here. You get so many opportunities, you feel like you’re losing to the field if you don’t birdie with a wedge in your hand. But they put these pins in such difficult locates it’s hard to feed it next to it, once you do, it’s difficult to get the right line on the green. So recognizing that the course is 6800 yards for a reason. It’s tricked out elsewhere. And being very patient on the weekend is key. I always mention that, that’s always the word. I try to tell myself that, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Given here especially, given that we’re going to have a lot of chances, greens in regulations is going to be an important stat.“
Russell Knox: “The scores here – I always think this course, if you tee off in the morning, the conditions, you can always shoot a mega low score. That’s what Jim Furyk did last year on Sunday. But as the day goes on, teeing off in the afternoon, especially on a weekend, shooting under par is a great score if you tee off at 1, 2 o’clock. So the course changes significantly as the day goes on, just the firmness of the greens. I think players like that. But every hole, I don’t really feel uncomfortable on. I mean, you don’t have to overpower this course. I remember watching the year before. I think Bubba Watson and Corey Pavin were in a playoff with Scott Verplank maybe too. And I remember thinking what an amazing course this must be that the shortest hitter and longest hitter in the field are in the playoff. So this course, I think, allows everyone in the field to win, and I think that shows what a great course this is.“
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.“
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 8 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
For the record, here’s the breakdown of pure Poa Annua and Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
The Travelers Championship is the traditional post-US Open stop-off. Trend-wise going back to J.J. Henry in 2006, no player has finished inside the US Open top 10 and then gone on to win the week after. This includes Erin Hills 12 months ago where winner Jordan Spieth had finished 35th in Wisconsin. Trends are always there to be broken, but until this point the best US Open performers to then go on to win here since 2006 have been Mahan (2007 14th), Cink (2008 14th) and Jacobson (2011 14th). That trend is over a considerable length of time and makes logical sense with competition starting 4 days after the traumas and stresses of a US Open test. Yes Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson and Russell Knox could all feature this week, and potentially place, but they’d be going against the formbook.
The mix of recent winners here is interesting. 2-time winner Bubba Watson blasted his way to victory, but he’s undoubtedly a creative shot-shaper. Last year’s winner Jordan Spieth and Marc Leishman are also ball-flight movers who thrive on tree-lined tests. Knox, Streelman, Duke, Jacobson and Perry were far more accurate from the tee. Greens in regulation over the past renewals has become of secondary importance to high quality birdie making powered by high class putting. All 8 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.
My selections are as follows:
Bubba Watson at the Travelers is almost an automatic bet. Unbelievably I got the exact same price 12 months ago when Watson was playing horribly with Volvik golf balls, so I’m pretty shocked to see identical odds in 2018 after he’s won at Riviera, finished 9th at Club de Golf Chapultepec, won the WGC Dell Match Play Championship at Austin Country Club and finished 5th at Augusta National. Since then we’ve seen the inevitable tail-off, although May is always Bubba downtime. TPC Sawgrass is the only Pete Dye design Watson can’t play with its emphasis on quashing length and creativity. Muirfield Village saw Bubba in 14th place after 36 holes after a Round 2 -5/67 – he eventually finished 44th – and we can forget Shinnecock as it’s a US Open which Bubba can’t abide and that’s the whole scenario with the World Number 20 – he comes alive on certain courses, plus Pete Dye designs have been good to him over the years. His success here in 2010 was his maiden PGA Tour victory; he then won at TPC Louisiana in 2011, repeated his TPC River Highlands victory in 2015 and this year’s WGC Match Play victory in Texas was again on a Pete Dye design. That’s 4 from 11 PGA Tour victories on Dye tracks. Undoubtedly he’ll want to keep playing well to assure his place automatically on the USA Ryder Cup team and with Jim Furyk in Connecticut this week, hopefully Watson can add to his 2 wins and 3 each-way place payouts here at TPC River Highlands. RESULT: Winner
2011 saw Patrick Cantlay make his professional debut at TPC River Highlands. The week before he’d finished 21st and top amateur at the US Open hosted at Congressional Country Club. After 55 weeks as the World Number 1 amateur, Cantlay relinquished an outing at the Open Championship to turn professional a week later in Connecticut and made an instant impact. Rounds of -3/67 and an amazing -10/60 saw Cantlay become an instant star on the PGA Tour as he held the 36 hole lead on his pro debut. Plenty of water has passed on the bridge since then, but after eventually finishing 24th, Patrick 7 years down the track finds himself in the World’s top 30 and undoubtedly keen to win more titles over and above the maiden Shriners Hospital Open he won back in October. 4th at Riviera and 4th at Muirfield Village so far in 2018 highlight a player very comfortable on Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix putting surfaces and an additional 2nd at Copperhead in 2017 shows that Patrick comes to the fore on tree-lined courses where strategy and ball-striking are required. He also plays well on Pete Dye designs – 5th at the Dye’s Valley course in 2012, 3rd and 7th at Harbour Town across 2017 and 2018, plus 7th at TPC Louisiana are strong indicators. Add the fact that he was also 7th after 54 holes and 2nd after 36 holes at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass across the past 2 seasons and we can say that up until this point Cantlay has played well on Pete Dye designs. A quiet 45th last week at Shinnecock Hills bodes well for a challenge this week at a course he should thrive on. RESULT: T15
Brian Harman looks the sort who could virtually sneak up and take the title this week. At 16th for Driving Accuracy, 24th in Greens in Regulation and 55th for Proximity to Hole on the PGA Tour this season, he’s theoretically the sort who can navigate around TPC River Highlands quite nicely. He does all of his scoring on par-4s – 6th for Birdie or Better Conversion – and he’s an excellent putter. 25th in the FedEx Cup, Brian still sits in the top 12 for Team America when it comes to Ryder Cup qualifying points. Deep down he must know that he needs a win and soon to really push the issue for team captain Jim Furyk and that’s something that Harman can deliver up-state. He won the 2014 John Deere Classic in Illinois for his maiden PGA Tour victory in a season where he already had 5 top-10s. With 7 already in season 2017/18, he’s surpassed that number and a tournament win this week is not out of the question. ‘Quiet’ form in tends to get the job done at the Travelers and 36th at Shinnecock and 14th at Colonial works nicely. He was 14th at halfway last week and mid-rounds of -3/67 and -6/64 fired him into contention at Colonial. He’s undoubtedly playing well and Harman’s record at Dye designs is encouraging: 3rd at PGA West which features 36 holes at Dye’s Stadium Course design, 7th (2014) and 9th (2017) at Harbour Town plus 3rd here in 2015 highlights a player who clearly understands what’s required to contend on Dye set-ups. RESULT: T6
Kyle Stanley is one that I like for the TPC River Highlands test this week. A player who seems to be peaking quite nicely, Stanley is almost silently moving up the OWGR, currently sitting at 38th. Fact is that the 2-time PGA Tour winner has been making some noise of late. Yes he’s missed the cut at both Shinnecock and TPC Sawgrass recently, but he also finished 2nd to Bryson DeChambeau at Muirfield Village, finished 13th at Quail Hollow and made it to the Quarter Finals of the WGC Dell Match Play Championship on the Pete Dye design at Austin Country Club. Undoubted progress especially when over the past 13 months he’s also finished 4th at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass (another Pete Dye design), Won Tiger’s National tournament at TPC Potomac, made it to his first Tour Championship, finished 5th at the WGC HSBC Champions event at Sheshan and already this season garnered 4 top 10 finishes on Tour – you can add TPC Summerlin and Waialae to Sheshan and Muirfield Village. A ball-striker of high calibre, Kyle has already gained over a stroke on the field putting at Waialae, Torrey Pines, Bay Hill and Muirfield Village this season and when the putter works to that extent, Stanley becomes very visible on leaderboards as he should with his accompanying tee-to-green game. 19th on debut here in 2009 and 20th here in 2015 show that he can be very competitive around these parts. His CV includes some eye-catching up-state performances at the likes of Deere Run (2nd 2011), TPC Boston (10th 2011) and Muirfield Village (3rd 2013, 6th 2017 before finishing runner-up 3 weeks ago). He’s undoubtedly a plotter who can score very nicely when the putter cooperates and we know he’s comfortable on poa annua based putting surfaces. RESULT: T15
I was surprised to see 66/1 about Emiliano Grillo after a 2018 which has garnered fresh enthusiasm from the Argentine and it often pays to stay patient on players. Again if we’re looking for ‘quiet’ form Grillo currently works well – MC(US Open)-23(Memorial)-3(Colonial)-37(TPC Sawgrass). Some might say that Grillo’s spring 2018 form has peaked, but I’m staying on-board as I think the tree-lined confines of TPC River Highlands will work well for a player who’s publicly stated he loves Colonial, Muirfield Village and Bethpage Black courses and whose first PGA Tour win was on the classical course at Silverado which features similar greens to those found this week. 10th for Driving Accuracy, 17th for Greens in Regulation, 22nd for Strokes Gained Approach, 44th for Proximity to Hole, 11th for par-4 Scoring Average and 11th for Strokes Gained Putting PGA Tour season-long statistical numbers work beautifully for the test this week. 23rd at Muirfield Village featured a Round 3 -4/68 and Grillo, along with Shinnecock champion Brooks Koepka, were the only 2 players who could keep Justin Rose honest at Colonial. Emiliano showed some fortitude when in contention at Houston and Colonial this season and on his last trip to Cromwell back in 2015 he finished 44th on course debut with a final round -3/67 suggesting he’d got his head around the course. Undoubtedly the World Number 51 finds himself in far better form 2 years down the track. RESULT: T19
Another I have to side with this week is Patrick Rodgers who seems to be making progress of late. 41st at Shinnecock last week was a decent enough effort. A +2/72 on Thursday was an excellent start with winds gusting 30 mph and Patrick was in 14th spot after 36 holes. Saturday did for him as it did for most of the late starters, but a -3/67 on Sunday was only beaten by Fleetwood, Fowler and Matsuyama. That’s undoubtedly decent company to keep and we know that Rodgers, who graduated from Stanford University, has always been hailed as one to watch as an ex-Amateur World Number 1 and Ben Hogan Award winner. Prior to Shinnecock, Rodgers finished 8th in great company at the Memorial Tournament where he started with a -5/67,and then shot -4/68 across both Saturday and Sunday. 8th at Pebble Beach and 7th at Bay Hill already in 2018, Rodgers plays his best stuff on classical golf courses. Comfortable on poa annua greens, Rodgers also has a habit of popping up on shorter, up-state courses where scoring is possible. 3rd here in 2015, 2 back from Russell Knox and tied with Justin Thomas, Rodgers was in the mix from Friday onwards. He also came closest to winning his maiden PGA Tour title last July at the short and tight Deere Run where a -17/271 total was one shot shy of Bryson DeChambeau. Patrick has become one of the very best putters on the Tour this season – 24th for Strokes Gained Putting – and has been in the top 25 for Greens in Regulation across 2 of his past 4 events. That’s a potent combination as he arrives at a course he clearly likes. RESULT: T26
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