Travelers Championship: Bubba and Russell chanced at River Highlands

Golfer Russell Henley
Russell Henley - fancied by The Punter to go well in Connecticut
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With the dust still setting after a fabulous US Open, the PGA Tour moves on to Connecticut for it's now traditional post US Open stop-off at River Highlands. Read our man's comprehensive preview ahead of Thursdays start here...

"The third round leader or co-leader has gone on to win only four times in the last 14 years and seven of the last nine 54-hole leaders have been beaten and some of the winners here have come from absolutely miles back."

Tournament History

Founded as the Insurance City Open in 1952, and formerly known as the Greater Hartford Open, the Travelers Championship has been in existence for 66 years.

The tournament was moved in the schedule to accommodate the Olympics in 2016 but aside from that year, the Travelers Championship has been played in the week following the US Open since 2007.

This event has seen a number of records set lately. In 2011, Patrick Canlay set the course record with a ten-under-par 60 - also the lowest round by an amateur. In 2014, Kevin Streelman became the first to birdie the last seven holes to win a PGA Tour event and Jim Furyk shot the PGA Tour's first ever 58 here in 2016.

The quality of the fields appear to be improving year on year and five of the world's top-ten are in attendance this time around.

Venue

TPC River Highlands, Cromwell, Connecticut

Course Details

Par 70 - 6,841 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 70.2

Originally designed by Robert J. Ross and Maurice Kearney in 1928, TPC River Highlands was reworked by Pete Dye in 1982 and again by Bobby Weed in 1989. It's not a particularly strong test and low scoring is the norm. Both the fairways and the smaller than average bentgrass greens are easy to hit and scoring is always in the double-digits under-par. The greens usually run slow at around 10.5 on the stimpmeter.

Holes 15, 16 and 17, are nicknamed the 'Golden Triangle' and they wind around a lake, creating a dramatic backdrop for what's usually a very theatrical finish. The par four 15th is a drivable par four and it was the second easiest hole on the course last year, averaging 3.75, but the water is in play for anyone straying left. The par three 16th is played back over the water and is tough enough (last year averaged 3.12) and the 17th hole has water to the right off the tee and approach shots to the green are played back over the lake. Last year it ranked as the third toughest hole of the week, averaging 4.14.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning on Thursday with Featured Group coverage at 17:30 UK and Ireland time and full coverage at 20:30.

Last Five Winners

2018 - Jordan Spieth -12 (playoff)
2016 - Russell Knox -14
2015 - Bubba Watson -16 (playoff)
2014 - Kevin Streelman -15
2013 - Ken Duke -12 (playoff)

What Will it Take to Win the Travelers Championship?

There was something very Jordan Spiethy about Jordan Spieth's victory last year. He didn't drive the ball well, ranking, 41st for Driving Accuracy and 51st for Driving Distance and his iron play wasn't terrific either given he ranked 42nd for Greens In Regulation but as demonstrated by the bizarre birdie putt he made on 15 in round four (below), he putted really well and found the bottom of the cup repeatedly, even when he didn't think he had!

And then just to top it all off, he won the event in extra time with this incredible shot on 18.

I've gone back ten years to work out the average rankings for the last ten winners and the picture is fairly clear (results below). As Spieth demonstrated 12 months ago, what you do off the tee isn't especially important and you don't need a tremendous ball striking week but you do need to putt well.

Average Rankings - Last 10 Winners

Driving Distance - 25.6
Driving Accuracy - 28
Greens In Regulation - 28.6
Scrambling - 18.2
Putting Average - 6.8
Putts Per Round - 7.3

As Furyk demonstrated in no uncertain terms two years ago, this is a track that offers up very low scoring and the event is basically a putting competition. The Birdie Average Stats may help but knowing quite who is going to have a good week with the flat-stick on any particular week is never easy and tournaments like this are always tricky.

Is There an Angle In?

Prior to the event immediately following the US Open, Notah Begay won here, a week after winning the St Jude Classic, but ever since the tournament has followed last week's major, none of the Travelers winners have contended in the US Open.

Being in-contention at a major the week before isn't a huge negative generally but the stats say it is at this particular tournament and that makes sense given how tough the US Open usually is and how different a test this is. Spieth had finished 35th at Erin Hills the week before he won here 12 months ago and the man he beat in the playoff, Daniel Berger, had missed the cut in the US Open - although the week before that he'd successfully defended his St Jude Classic title.

It's big change to go from an event as tough as the US Open to one as easy as this and I'd be wary of backing anyone in the thick of it at Shinnecock last week.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

This used to be a fantastic tournament to trade and taking on the fancied ones from the start and building a book from there has paid handsomely over the years but two of the last three winners, Spieth, 12 months ago and Bubba Watson in 2015, went off favourite and won wire-to wire. Outsiders, PGA Tour maidens and old-timers all have a good record at TPC River Highlands though. The winner in-between Jordan and Bubba was Russell Knox at around [60.0] and we've seen a number of really big-priced winners...

Streelman was a [220.0] shot before the get-go four years ago and 12 months earlier, 45-year-old PGA Tour rookie, Ken Duke, won having been matched at [680.0] before the off.

Bubba and Spieth are obviously prolific winners and the 2014 winner, Streelman, like the 2016 winner, Knox, had won once before, but six of the eight winners before Streelman were all winning on the PGA Tour for the very first time.

Jerry Kelly finished runner-up at the age of 49 two years ago and five of the last 15 Travelers winners have been over 40. And had KJ Choi, who traded at just [1.72] in 2014, held on, that would have read six from 15. When Bubba won here for the first time he beat veterans Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin in a playoff so with a small twist of fate the aged pros could have won seven or even eight of the last 15 renewals. Don't be afraid to back a wily old vet.

In-Play Tactics

The third round leader or co-leader has gone on to win only four times in the last 14 years and seven of the last nine 54-hole leaders have been beaten and some of the winners here have come from absolutely miles back.

Knox won from three adrift after the clear odds-on leader, Daniel Berger, shot a disappointing 74 to finish tied fifth two years ago but many a winner has come from much further back.

Marc Leishman trailed by six - six years ago, as did Bubba in 2010, and the two Watson beat in the playoff (Verplank and Pavin) came from six and eight shots back respectively!

When Brad Faxon won in 2005 he was trailing by 12 at halfway and by seven after three rounds. Phil Mickelson won from five back with a round to go in 2002 and Notah Begay and Woody Austin, like Knox, have both won the event this century from three off the pace. Duke sat in a tie for 6th and was trailing by two five years ago and Streelman was four back and trading at [55.0] in 2014.

This is always a good event to trade and to take on the fancied runners both before the off and in-running. Spieth won from the front last year but he wobbled badly having been matched at [1.09] earlier in the final round and he very nearly threw it away.

Berger was matched at just [1.48] two years ago and Russell Henley hit a low of [2.10] before he collapsed to finish outside the top-ten. He'd looked the most likely winner after ten holes but he played the next five in five-over-par!

The third round leader in 2015, Harman, only traded as low as [3.9] and Paul Casey, who was beaten by Bubba in extra time, dipped no lower than [1.62]. He was the only player other than Bubba to hit odds-on three years ago, but this is normally a tremendous event to trade in-running.

Three players hit odds-on four years ago without winning - K.J Choi, Aaron Baddeley and Sergio Garcia and five years ago Bubba hit a low of [1.28] before messing up the 16th hole and Charley Hoffman was two clear with two to play in 2012 but played them in three-over-par!

We nearly always get a dramatic tight finish and seven of the last 14 renewals have gone to extra time.

Market Leaders

Having finished third in 2016, Justin Thomas was well-fancied 12 months ago but his final round flop at Erin Hills, where he'd fallen from second to tied ninth in round four, soon took its toll and just as he'd done in 2016, he missed the cut. Thomas didn't ever quite get in to the thick of it at Shinnecock last week but he did play all four rounds and he's not for me here.

Defending champ, Jordan Spieth, rallied at Shinnecock after a poor opening round but bogeys at his last two holes saw him miss out on weekend employment and that should be a plus. He's not yet defended a title but he has won the John Deere Classic twice - in 2013 and 2015. He should be fresher than most but his putting has been his Achilles' heel for a few months now and that's hardly ideal for what is basically a putting contest.

Rory McIlroy also rallied in the milder weather on day two last week, having struggled badly in the windy conditions on Thursday but he too came up just shy to miss the cut at his third US Open in-a-row. The Irishman was 17th on debut here last year but he's too inconsistent and often poor with the flatstick for me to back him from the get-go.

US Open champ, Brooks Koepka, finished ninth in 2016 but understandably, given he'd just won his first major, he didn't play last year. Whether he lines up or not this week, he's not for me. As already detailed, this is vastly different to a US Open and I would be very surprised to see him lift himself mentally to contend.

Selections

Bubba Watson is just an automatic pick here at odds of above [30.0]. He appears to have lost his way a bit after a scintillating start to the year but at a venue that clear suits him, he has to be a play.

Bubba has a habit of playing well at all the same venues. He's won twice at Augusta and he won his third Genesis Open title at Riviera in February. If he can get his putter to warm up, a third River Highlands success is perfectly possible.

I did most of my research for this before the US Open began and once I'd finished and turned my attention to Shinnecock, I typed, in bold capitals, one name. Russell Henley.

Seeing him start so well last week was frustrating - all I wanted was a missed cut! As highlighted above, being in-contention at the US Open is far from ideal so this might not be the year for Henley but I thought he was still nicely priced to play for a few pounds.

I wanted at least one silly outsider and I wanted a vet so step forward multiple major winner, Padraig Harrington, at a ludicrous price. He worked with his coach, Pete Cowan, before the Italian Open, and we've seen signs of an improvement since. He's still not hitting his irons brilliantly, but he has putted really well recently. He led this event in 2010 before finishing fifth and he was a respectable 17th last year.

Selections:
Bubba Watson @ [34.0]
Russell Henley @ [70.0]
Padraig Harrington @ [450.0]


I'll be back later with my BMW International Open preview.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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