Travelers Championship: Hot putting the key at River Highlands

Golfer Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka - rounding into form nicely
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The PGA Tour moves to Connecticut for what's usually the post US Open stop-off at River Highlands. Read The Punter's comprehensive preview ahead of Thursdays start..

"Tournaments with a big premium on putting are always tricky but given we've only had two events back after the break, analysing the stats at Colonial and Harbour Town, and identifying who's been putting well over the last fortnight, should be a big clue this year."

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 68 years.

The tournament was moved to August to accommodate the Olympics in 2016 but in every other year since 2007 it's been played in the week following the US Open. This year, after the Coronavirus break, it follows last week's RBC Heritage - an event that usually follows the US Masters.

The Travelers has seen a number of records set lately. In 2011, Patrick Cantlay set the course record with a ten-under-par 60 - which is also the lowest round shot by an amateur in a PGA Tour event. In 2014, Kevin Streelman became the first player 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.

Venue

TPC River Highlands, Cromwell, Connecticut

Course Details

Par 70 - 6,841 yards
Stroke Index in 2019 - 69.72

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 scores are out there. Both the fairways and the smaller than average Poa Annua greens are fairly easy to hit and scoring is always in the double-digits under-par.

Holes 15, 16 and 17, are nicknamed the 'Golden Triangle' and they wind around a lake, creating a dramatic backdrop for what's often a theatrical finish. At less than 300 yards, the short par four 15th is drivable but it's not a straightforward test and last year it only averaged 3.88. The green has tricky roll-offs and 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 3.01) and the par four 17th hole has water to the right off the tee and approach shots to the green are played back over the lake. It was the hardest hole on the course last year, averaging 4.18.

TPC RIVER HIGHLANDS 1 2020.jpg

The par four finishing hole was the fourth hardest hole on the course last year - averaging 4.12.

Weather Forecast
Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning on Thursday with Featured Group coverage at 11:30 UK and Ireland time and full coverage at 20:00.

Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2019 - Chez Reavie -17 [80.0]
2018 - Bubba Watson -17 [32.0]
2017 - Jordan Spieth -12 (playoff) [11.0]
2016 - Russell Knox -14 [60.0]
2015 - Bubba Watson -16 (playoff) [15.0]

What will it take to win the Travelers Championship?

I've gone back 10 years to work out the average rankings for the last 10 winners and the picture is fairly clear (results below). It's all about putting.

Average Rankings - Last 10 Winners
Driving Distance - 30.2
Driving Accuracy - 32.3
Greens In Regulation - 27.1
Scrambling - 20.8
Putting Average - 6.8
Putts Per Round - 6.6

As Furyk demonstrated in no uncertain terms four years ago, this is a track that offers up very low scoring and the event is basically a putting competition. The myriad of putting stats on the PGA Tour website may help but knowing quite who is going to have a good four days with the flat-stick on any particular week is never easy.

Tournaments with a big premium on putting are always tricky but given we've only had two events back after the break, analysing the stats at Colonial and Harbour Town, and identifying who's been putting well over the last fortnight, should be a big clue this year.

The last six winners have all played the par fours better than anyone else so the Par 4 Scoring stats should be worth a look.

Is There an Angle In?

Given we've just had a 13 week long break and that putting is always key in this tournament, it makes sense to concentrate on those who have warmed up nicely with a couple of outings at the last two events - the Charles Schwab Challenge and last week's RBC Heritage (De-Brief here) - and especially so if they've putted well.

The following have not only played the last two weeks, they've also ranked inside the top-25 for Total Putting at both tournaments. They should be very nicely primed and if they can maintain the excellent putting, they should contend.

Justin Thomas
Justin Rose
Lucas Glover
Brian Harman
Ian Poulter
J.T Poston

Is there an identikit winner?

Taking on the fancied ones from the start and building a book from there used to be a great way to trade this tournament but we haven't seen a triple-figure priced winner in five years and two of the last five winners, Jordan Spieth, three years ago and Bubba in 2015, went off favourite.

Despite recent results, outsiders, PGA Tour maidens and old-timers all have a good historic record at TPC River Highlands. Reavie was an [80.0] chance 12 months ago, Russell Knox went off at around [60.0] in 2016 and we've seen a number of really big-priced winners fairly recently.

bubba watson 2018 1280x720.jpg

Kevin Streelman was a [220.0] shot before the get-go six 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 were prolific winners and last year's winner, Reavie, like the 2014 winner, Streelman, and the 2016 winner, Knox, had won only once before, but six of the eight winners before Streelman were all winning on the PGA Tour for the very first time.

A decade after he'd won the title for a second time, 45-year-old Stewart Cink finished tied for second in 2018, Jerry Kelly finished runner-up at the age of 49 four years ago and five of the last 17 Travelers winners have been over 40.

Had KJ Choi, who traded at just [1.72] in 2014, held on, that would have read six from 17, and when Bubba won here for the first time he beat veterans Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin in a play-off so with a small twist of fate the aged pros could have won seven or even eight of the last 17 renewals. And the last two winners can hardly be described as spring chickens. Reavie was 37 12 months ago and Bubba 39. This short test gives the older guys a chance.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

2019 - Chez Reavie led by six strokes [1.28]
2018 - Bubba Watson trailing by six [36.0]
2017 - Jordan Spieth led by a stroke [1.76]
2016 - Russell Knox trailing by three [6.2]
2015 - Bubba Watson trailing by a stroke [3.25]

In-Play Tactics

Although two of the last three winners were leading after 54 holes, being in front here isn't always a plus. The third-round leader or co-leader has gone on to win only five times in the last 16 years and eight of the last 11 54-hole leaders have been beaten.

Reavie had a seemingly unassailable six-stroke lead last year and he eventually won by four but it wasn't smooth sailing on Sunday and Keegan Bradley got to within a stroke with three holes to play. It was similar story three years ago when Spieth won from the front but he wobbled badly having been matched at [1.09] earlier in the final round and he very nearly threw it away. Eventually beating Daniel Berger in a playoff thanks to this memorable bunker shot.

Paul Casey led by four with a round to go two years ago and he was matched at a low of [1.18] in-running before going on to get beat by three. Knox won from three adrift after the clear odds-on leader, Berger, shot a disappointing 74 to finish tied fifth four years ago but many a winner has come from even further back.

Marc Leishman trailed by six - eight years ago, as did Bubba in 2010 and again two years ago, and the two veterans Watson beat in the playoff 10 years ago (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 sixth and was trailing by two seven years ago and Streelman was four back and trading at [55.0] in 2014.

The third-round leader in 2015, Brian Harman, only traded as low as [3.9] and Paul Casey, who was beaten by Bubba in extra time five years ago, dipped no lower than [1.62]. He was the only player other than Bubba to hit odds-on that year but as already stated, he was matched at just [1.18] in 2018 and this is normally a tremendous event to trade in-running.

Three players hit odds-on six years ago without winning - K.J Choi, Aaron Baddeley and Sergio Garcia and seven 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 16 renewals have gone to extra time.

Market Leaders

Justin Thomas has course form figures reading 30-MC-3-MC-56-36 so he's hardly a River Highlands specialist but I can see why he's heading the market. Having finished 10th and eighth in each of the last two weeks, and having putted nicely on both occasions, he's trending nicely in the right direction.

Thomas will appreciate encountering wider fairways given he's not been keeping it too straight off the tee and that the last two venues are narrow and I'd be prepared to overlook the poor course form given this event usually follows the US Open. Currently ranking third for Par 4 Scoring and putting nicely, the prolific world number three is likely to contend again.

In his two appearances to date, in 2017 and 2018, Rory McIlroy has finished 17th and 12th. He signed off his debut performance with a 64 and he opened up with another 12 months later to sit third and just one off the lead before fading.

Rory McIlroy drive left 1280.jpg

Rory was in terrific form before the break and although he's only finished 32nd and 41st in his two starts back, neither Colonial nor Harbour Town play to his strengths. He's likely to improve considerably this week but others are preferred.

Bryson DeChambeau has course form figures reading 47-26-9-8 and having played well before the break, he's returned to post two more top-tens. Just one off the lead and playing seemingly brilliant golf, DeChambeau was looking like a future world number one and soon to be crowned major champion at the halfway stage at Harbour Town last week but he couldn't buy a putt over the weekend and that's a big worry here.
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Selections

World number four, Brooks Koepka, understandably didn't play here after his first US Open win three years ago, having finished ninth here in 2016, and he was a never in-contention 19th in 2018 after defending his US Open title.

It was no surprise to see him finish down the field 12 months ago (57th), having just failed to win his third US Open in-a-row (finished second to Gary Woodland) and no player in the field can have been more distracted here of late. Given the circumstances, his course form is quite reasonable and that's perhaps not surprising given he ranked number one for Par 4 Scoring last season. His seventh placed finish last week at Harbour Town was his first top-10 for 10 months and I thought he was well worth chancing at [24.0] given how well he putted last week.

Bubba Watson has a habit of playing well at all the same venues. He's won twice at Augusta, three times at Riviera and he's bidding to win for a fourth time here. He performed poorly at Harbour Town last week but his seventh at Colonial the week before was eye-catching and I couldn't leave him out at [38.0].

Having backed Chile's Joaquin Niemann at [170.0] last week when he came up just shy at Harbour Town, I wanted to back him again this week but he's almost four times shorter this week and his putting figures aren't great. In contrast, J.T Poston, who admittedly doesn't have any course form (three missed cuts), has almost doubled in price despite finishing inside the top-ten for the second week in-a-row. He's putted nicely in each of the last two weeks and so too, very surprisingly, has Lucas Glover...

The 2009 US Open winner is a perennial struggler on the greens so something's clicked during the break. Glover's best effort here to date is 11th, a week after he won the US Open, but I fancy he'll be in a better frame of mind this year after a pair of decent efforts away from the major he won - 23rd at Colonial and 21st at Harbour Town. Having turned 40, Glover is a very interesting runner this week and in addition to playing him on the exchange at a big price, I've also backed him on the Sportsbook at 12/1 and 11/2 to finish inside the top-10 and top-20. He ranked 11th for Par 4 Scoring on the PGA Tour last season.

Russell Henley was a disappointing selection last week and he performed poorly here 12 months ago but he contended here on the first two occasions he played River Highlands (was matched at just [2.08] in running in 2016) so he looks worth chancing at a huge price and so too does Harry Higgs, who currently ranks number one for Par 4 Scoring on the PGA Tour.

I'll be back on Friday with the In-Play Blog.

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