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Golf's Bash Brothers seek success in Hartford

By Wes Reynolds  (Point Spread Weekly) 

June 23, 2020 11:25 PM
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Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson
© Imagn
Webb Simpson’s putter got hot at the right time Sunday as he carded a 30 on the back nine and set an RBC Heritage scoring record of -22/262 to win by one at a 25/1 price. Simpson’s second win of 2020, after taking the Waste Management Phoenix Open, moved him to No. 5 in the Official World Golf Rankings and gave him the FedEx Cup points lead. The top seven in the OWGR are playing in this week’s Travelers Championship just south of Hartford, Conn., with Simpson priced at 20/1. Abraham Ancer will likely see support from 30/1 to 35/1, considering he was the runner-up at Hilton Head while hitting an astounding 65 of 72 greens in regulation, including all 18 in a Sunday round of 65. No. 1 Rory McIlroy, No. 3 Justin Thomas — fresh off a Sunday round of 63 — and No. 11 Bryson DeChambeau — like Thomas off back-to-back top-10 finishes — form the triumvirate of favorites this week at 14/1 at Westgate Superbook USA. World No. 2 Jon Rahm follows at 18/1. Brooks Koepka is still in the OWGR top 5 at No. 4 and comes to Hartford off a seventh-place finish, his best since last year’s Tour Championship. He is slotted at 20/1. Patrick Cantlay (20/1), who shot 60 in the 2011 Travelers Championship as a 19-year-old amateur, and Paul Casey (40/1), who has four top-5s in the last five years at the Travelers, return to the PGA Tour after skipping the first two events. Three-time Travelers champion Bubba Watson likely will be a popular pick between 30/1 and 35/1. Chez Reavie is the defending champion and is priced as a 125/1 long shot. 
 
The Event
The Travelers Championship was established in 1952 as the Insurance City Open before it became known as the Greater Hartford Open for most of its existence from 1967-2003. Famous entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. was a fixture at the Tuesday/Wednesday pro-ams in Hartford, and his name was attached to the event from 1973-88. TPC River Highlands has been the tournament venue since 1984. The event is managed by the Greater Hartford Community Foundation. Travelers, one of the largest insurance companies in the U.S., took over sponsorship in 2007 after Canon and Buick were associated with the event for many years. The Travelers is customarily slotted the week after the U.S. Open but still attracts solid fields. In 2017 and ’18, the tournament earned the PGA Tour’s Players Choice Award, which is voted on by PGA Tour members for its services, hospitality and quality of the course and overall event. This year it will have arguably its best field ever, with 34 of the OWGR top 40 committed to play. 
 
The Course
TPC River Highlands is in Cromwell, Conn., about 12 miles south of Hartford. Robert Ross designed the course in 1928, and the track was founded as the Middletown Country Club. It became the Edgewood Country Club from 1934-84 before being purchased by the PGA Tour and becoming TPC River Highlands. It was redesigned by Pete Dye in 1984 and remodeled in 1989 by Bobby Weed, a Dye protege. The course plays as a par-70 of 6,841 yards, the second-shortest layout on the PGA Tour behind Pebble Beach. Jim Furyk set the course record in the final round of the 2016 Travelers with a 58, the lowest round in PGA Tour history. River Highlands is a tight, tree-lined parklands layout. Wind is the main defense, and the winning score averages in the mid-teens under par. The course has only four water holes, and some bunkers were removed in a 2015 renovation to create more short pitch shots from fairways into the greens. The fairways and rough are Bentgrass/Poa Annua, and the greens are a Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix. Shorter hitters as well as bombers have won here. As always, ball striking and hitting greens with regularity are a good recipe for success, and River Highlands is no exception. 
 
Travelers Championship Trends and Angles
Since Strokes Gained stats were introduced in 2016, every Travelers winner has been fifth or better in the field that week for SG: T2G.
o ’19: Reavie, 1st; ’18: Watson, 2nd; ’17: Spieth, 1st; ’16: Knox, 5th. 
The Travelers winner has averaged seventh in the field in SG: Approach during the last four years.
o ’19: Reavie, 1st; ’18: Watson, 18th; ’17: Spieth, 7th; ’16: Knox, 3rd. 
 
Aside from the Dye courses, look at Riviera (Genesis Invitational), Torrey Pines (Farmers Insurance Open) and Pebble Beach (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am).
o Bubba Watson: Three wins at Riviera (’14, ’16, ’18); one at Torrey Pines (’11).
o Chez Reavie: Third at ’19 U.S. Open (Pebble Beach); second at ’18 AT&T PB; seventh at ‘16 Riviera.
o Jordan Spieth: Win at ’17 AT&T PB plus three other top-10s there since ’14; two top-10s at Riviera.
o Kevin Streelman: Four top-10s at Pebble Beach, including a runner-up this year.
o Marc Leishman: Win this year at Torrey Pines plus two runners-up (’10 and ’14); two top-5s at Riviera (’16 and ’19).
 
Riviera is a Bentgrass/Poa Annua mix on the greens, while Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach have Bentgrass green complexes. 
 
Travelers Championship Recent History
2019: Chez Reavie (-17/263)  70/1
2018: Bubba Watson (-17/263) 28/1
2017: Jordan Spieth (-12/268) 9/1*
2016: Russell Knox (-14/266) 45/1
2015: Bubba Watson (-16/264) 11/1 **
2014: Kevin Streelman (-15/265) 125/1
2013: Ken Duke (-12/268) 150/1  ***
2012: Marc Leishman (-14/266) 100/1
2011: Fredrik Jacobson (-20/260) 45/1
2010: Bubba Watson (-14/266) 40/1 ****
 
* — Won playoff vs. Daniel Berger
** — Won playoff vs. Paul Casey
*** — Won playoff vs. Chris Stroud
**** — Won playoff vs. Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank
 
Selections
Brooks Koepka 25/1
The three-month pause in PGA Tour action is starting to look like it was a benefit to Koepka. He had not been playing well in 2020 and visited Las Vegas before the Players Championship to see Butch Harmon. Claude Harmon III, Butch’s son, is Koepka’s regular swing coach. The Harmons’ main advice was essentially to keep it simple. Last week Koepka did exactly that and finished seventh, his best since winding up fourth at the Tour Championship in August. He led the field in SG: Off The Tee (+ 1.73) and was ranked in the top 20 in the field for SG: Tee-To-Green and SG: Putting on a course and in an event he was playing for the first time. 
 
What’s probably more important than the solid finish was how Koepka is feeling physically and mentally. “This is the best my body’s felt in years,” Koepka told the Golf Channel’s Rex Hoggard. “A lot of work I've done … just manipulating the knee, the kneecap. It’s been a long road. It just feels like I haven’t been healthy for a very long time. My body feels great. I feel like I can really move through the golf ball.”
 
Koepka told the media in February at Riviera that he was not near 100% and was still in major pain. The physical aspect looks like it has come back, but the concern in non-major events is always the mental part. Koepka has said he’s solely about the majors, but his game is beginning to come into shape in June, which is when the U.S. Open usually takes place. Koepka’s best finish in four appearances here is a ninth in 2016, but he also has two finishes in the 50s, so this track wouldn’t look like an ideal fit for him. Still, I’m banking on the positive attitude regarding his improved health to provide more motivation than usual. 
 
Dustin Johnson 30/1
I’ll also go with the other “Bash Brother” and fellow Claude Harmon III pupil. Johnson finished a relatively quiet T17 last week at the RBC Heritage. He hasn’t appeared here since 2014 and has never really contended in Hartford. However, Johnson did rank second and ninth, respectively, last week in SG: Off The Tee and SG: Tee-To-Green. Like his good buddy Koepka, Johnson spoke last week of confidence returning to his game. 
 
The recent form is certainly not spectacular, but some solid angles this week make a case for Johnson. First, he has had success on Pete Dye designs, including victories at Crooked Stick (2016 BMW Championship) and Austin Country Club (2017 WGC Dell Technologies Match Play), plus top-10s in the two PGA Championships at Whistling Straits. However, the return to putting on Bentgrass/Poa Annua is the more consistent angle. Ten of Johnson’s 20 PGA Tour wins have come on this surface, which substantially outpaces every other player on tour. His success on the West Coast is a strong indicator of that. He won in 2017 at Riviera, a near facsimile of what he will see on the greens this week, and was runner-up there in 2014 and ’15. Furthermore, he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 2009 and ’10 and was runner-up in 2014 and ’18.
 
Marc Leishman 60/1
Leishman has been in the winner’s circle at River Highlands, having won the 2012 Travelers. He looks to be a good buy-low candidate after missing the cut at Colonial due to poor putting and taking last week off. Like Johnson, Leishman has an excellent record in West Coast events with Bentgrass/Poa Annua greens, including defeating a top-end field to win the Farmers Insurance Open this year at Torrey Pines. The Aussie has two other runners-up at Torrey Pines in 2010 and ’14) and two top-5s at Riviera in 2016 and ’19. 
 
Leishman comes into this week ranked second on the tour in SG: Approach at + 1.16 strokes per round and is ranked best in this week’s field in this category. He also has a pretty consistent Tee-To-Green game (16th on tour; + 1.12). Driving Accuracy has been his weakness this season (208th), but the fairways are a relatively wide 38 yards on average, and he has enough course knowledge as a former champion to shape his shots. 
 
Sergio Garcia 65/1
Garcia isn’t a regular visitor to Hartford, but he has done well here. He tied for second in 2014, the win snatched from him when Kevin Streelman birdied his last seven holes to win by a stroke. Garcia finished T5 last week at Hilton Head despite being dead last in the field after Round 1 in SG: Putting (-3.91). He finally got some putts to drop Sunday, which put him in contention. Garcia’s ball striking was absolutely on point at Harbour Town. He led the field in SG: Tee-To-Green (+ 3.47) and was second in SG: Approach (+ 2.47). The putter let him down big time last week as he missed five putts inside 5 feet. 
 
Nevertheless, very few drive the ball better than Garcia. He ranks third on the tour in SG: Off The Tee (+ 0.98) and fifth in SG: Tee-To-Green (+ 1.68). 
 
Brian Harman 80/1
The left-hander who will see the bulk of the action is, of course, Bubba Watson, who has won here three times. But Harman provides another option down the board. He hasn’t won here but has had success on this track. Harman has three top-8 finishes at River Highlands in his last five years. He’s certainly not the biggest hitter, ranking 148th on the tour in Driving Distance, but he knows the lay of the land and the angles he needs to attack the pins. 
 
Joel Dahmen 80/1
A third-round 63 had Dahmen just one stroke off the lead going into the final round at the RBC Heritage. But he shot a 4-over 75 and tumbled down the leaderboard to tie for 48th. Dahmen is still seeking his first PGA Tour win. Since joining the tour in 2017, he has progressively improved and ranks a career-high 68th in the OWGR. Before the pause in play, Dahmen had carded back-to-back top-5 finishes at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera and at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He also had a respectable T14 at Pebble Beach this season and a top-10 at Torrey Pines in 2019. 
 
Dahmen’s ball-striking prowess has been evident this year, as he ranks 13th in SG: Approach (+ 0.74) and 11th in SG: Tee-To-Green (+ 1.23). The putting needs to improve (162nd in SGP), but he has potential for success on these greens like at Riviera. 
 
Max Homa 150/1
The pause in play probably came at the worst time for Homa. He had been playing the most consistent golf of his career with four top-10s from December through February. He missed the cut at Colonial upon returning, and a T41 finish at the RBC Heritage last week certainly won’t raise his profile, but he did shoot all four rounds in the 60s. Homa ranked fifth in the field last week for SG: Approach (+ 1.54) and 12th for SG: Tee-To-Green (+ 1.59). He lost strokes on and around the green, but a return to Bentgrass/Poa Annua might help. 
 
Homa posted finishes this year of T9, T14 and T5 at Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Riviera, respectively.
 
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