The sparkly threesome of Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson was making the turn last Thursday at Hartford. There they were, the winners of the last three majors, using towels to sop the sweat off their arms. Simpson, the newly crowned U.S. Open champ, was wearing lime-green pants and drinking pink water. Watson and Bradley were enjoying other colors. Maybe 150 people were following the trio, on the lovely TPC River Highlands course, off Main Street, down the road a piece from the Rocky Hill VFW Hall. (The old Tour is not dead yet.) The air was limp, and so was the crowd. Young Webb wasn’t in San Francisco anymore.
It can’t be that easy, playing golf the week after you win the U.S. Open. Or can it?
It wasn’t easy for Watson to play New Orleans three weeks after he won the Masters in April. Bradley won the 2011 PGA in Atlanta last August, took off one week and came back to play at the Barclays, the first stop in the FedEx Cup playoffs. Suddenly, he was a rookie in the big leagues, and he was paired with Luke Donald and Phil Mickelson. He was introduced on the 1st tee as the PGA champion. “The highlight of my career,” Bradley, 26, said last week. Never mind that he missed that cut.
The Travelers Championship has owned the week after the U.S. Open for six years now, which means it will likely never get Tiger Woods, who almost never plays the week after a major. But that spot on the Tour calendar can make for some nice surprises too. Lucas Glover won the 2009 U.S. Open on a Monday at Bethpage, read the top 10 list on David Letterman’s show the next night and was playing in the Travelers pro-am the day after that.
“I never even thought about not playing,” Glover said last week. “I was committed, and I was playing well. I had so much confidence. This game is all about confidence.” Plus, the Travelers people made it so easy for him. They picked him up in a company plane on Wednesday morning and got him to the course. “We were in the air for 16 minutes,” Glover said. “Didn’t even have time to finish my glass of wine.” Glover echoed Bradley’s theme, saying the most satisfying moment of his professional life “was walking on that range here and having the guys congratulate me.” (He finished 11th that week at Hartford.) When you hear Glover, you realize that hoisting a trophy is part of a TV show, but a congrats, dude from your peers is what it’s really all about.
Simpson, a young U.S. Open champion at 26, sought advice from some of the 10 other major winners who played last week, particularly Watson and Zach Johnson. Watson told Webb, “You’re going to have to be able to say no.” In April, Watson finished 18th at New Orleans, then said no to the Players Championship. After missing the cut in the U.S. Open, Watson hung around the leader board on Sunday and finished in a tie for second, a shot behind Marc Leishman, who won his first event on an afternoon that was a blooper reel of duffering.
Zach Johnson, winner of the 2007 Masters, did like Webb and Glover: He won his major and kept on going, playing Hilton Head right after his Augusta victory and finishing sixth. Johnson said last week that the thing he remembers best from Hilton Head that year was signing Masters flags for the first time. In fact, that was the week he got into the Masters flag-signing business. He’s been in it ever since.
Justin Leonard, winner of the 1997 British Open, had a similar experience. He won at Royal Troon, went home to Dallas to celebrate for a week, then played the Tour stop at Castle Pines, outside Denver, where he hit a wall on the weekend and finished 39th. “I remember after the first day, I was wearing a dark green shirt and the sleeves of both arms were lined with pen marks,” Leonard said last week. “That’s about the only thing I do remember.” It was a long time ago, and a major win will turn your mind to mush.
It was quite a roster assembled last week in the Nutmeg State. You already know that Bradley, Watson, Simpson, Johnson, Glover and Leonard were there. Leonard played the first two rounds with Louis Oosthuizen (2010 British Open) and Padraig Harrington (’07 and ’08 British Open, ’08 PGA). Hall of Famer Vijay Singh was in the house (1998 and ’04 PGA, ’00 Masters). So were future Hall of Famer Angel Cabrera (’07 U.S. Open, ’09 Masters) and Y.E. Yang (’09 PGA). Eleven winners of majors. Another thing to brag about, capable Travelers p.r. people.
Yang beat Tiger down the stretch at Hazeltine three years ago, took off a week, then played the FedEx Cup event at Liberty National, across the Hudson from Manhattan. He finished 20th. “I didn’t talk to Tiger, but I sort of brushed by him, and we said hi,” Yang said last week through an interpreter. “He seemed not too pleased with me.” Which would you prefer: Tiger being pleased with you or winning the Wanamaker Trophy?
Cabrera was asked last week how he enjoyed his longish break between winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont in ’07 and playing in the British Open at Carnoustie. “No, no,” the Argentine golfer said, correcting an error. “I played in Europe two weeks later.” His English, despite his claims to the contrary, is excellent, and so is his memory. He teed it up in the ’07 European Open at the K Club, outside Dublin, playing for $4.8 million in prize money and most likely a hefty appearance fee. He finished 60th and said something brilliant in a pretournament press conference: “The U.S. Open is over.” In other words, he was getting on with his life and not changing a thing. He didn’t stay at the five-star resort at the K Club. He stayed at a more modest hotel, in a place he had stayed before.
On Friday at St. Andrews at the 2010 British Open, King Louis had a five-shot lead, and the weather was horrendous. He asked his manager, Chubby Chandler, to withdraw him from his next event, the Scandinavian Masters, played the week after the Open. Then on Sunday, when he won the Open by seven shots, he and Chandler concluded “that the best thing for me was to keep on playing,” Oosthuizen said last week. Chandler made a call, and the Scandinavian Masters people were happy to have Oosthuizen back in the tournament. He finished fourth. “My feeling was if I went home [to South Africa], I’d spend the whole week doing media,” Oosthuizen said. “If I played, I’d do the media early in the week and then I’d play.” That was a common theme among the Major 11—that increased media interest requires serious management.
“That’s one of the reasons Tiger has played so well, he didn’t win his majors and then go running all over the place doing TV,” Singh said last week, with obvious admiration.
Before Woods followed up his victory at the 2007 PGA with wins the next two weeks, Singh was the last player to win the week after claiming a major—the 1998 PGA at Sahalee, then Castle Pines. When he talked about that fortnight last week, his words seemed to come out of a dream state. “You’re so relaxed,” Singh said. “You’re swinging well, everything’s good. Your good shots are good, your bad shots are good. You’re happy.”
Harrington didn’t remember that Singh had won back to back, but he did remember, with some awe, that Bernhard Langer won the 1985 Masters and the following week at Hilton Head. In his three major wins, Harrington has always taken at least a week off before playing again and has never finished better than 14th. “It’s going to hit you eventually,” Harrington said last Friday. “Seeing Webb play well this week is really quite something, because winning a major will take a lot out of you.” Harrington said he was still dog-tired when he won the 2008 PGA a month after taking the British Open. When you consider that, it makes the four times that Woods has won consecutive majors amazingly, deeply impressive.
Harrington proved to be prescient. After rounds of 66, 69 and 68 at Hartford, Simpson was seven under and not completely out of it, not on a course that can produce some very low scores. Yes, he would have had to pull a Mahan (Hunter closed with a 61 at Hartford), but it was doable. Simpson shot a one-over 71 and finished 29th, eight strokes back. The tank was empty. Simpson won’t be playing in the British Open, not because of exhaustion but because of his wife’s pregnancy.
“I was hoping to play a little better today,” Simpson said on Sunday evening. “But it’s nice to be done, and I can’t wait to head home tonight and see my wife and son and have a week off to simply let things sink in a bit and get some rest.”
Ten of his fellow competitors last week knew exactly what he was talking about.