The Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Hartford, Conn., would be an easy tournament to overlook, what with its spot on the schedule, the week after the U.S. Open. In light of recent history, that would be a mistake.
If you weren't paying attention to the Travelers, you would have missed the first PGA Tour victories of Hunter Mahan ('07) and Bubba Watson ('10), both of whom have since cemented their status as A-list Tour stars. You'd have missed hometown favorite J.J. Henry emerging victorious in '06, and native New Englander Brad Faxon hoisting the trophy in '05. All are in the field this week.
The Travelers dates back to 1952, when it was called the Insurance City Open, and the list of distinguished champions includes Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Lee Trevino. This year's iteration will feature a sporty field for a tournament held the week after a major. (The Travelers offered a popular chartered flight from San Francisco to Hartford.) In fact, the newest big name in golf will be in Connecticut: freshly minted U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
Players Championship winner Matt Kuchar is also looking to add to his victory total this week, and the Travelers field includes others who made a splash at Olympic, such as last week's big surprise, Michael Thompson (T2), and Padraig Harrington (T4).
"Just from the get-go I've loved this golf course," said Thompson, who shot a final-round 62 to finish fourth at the 2011 Travelers. "It sets up great for me."
No kidding. In his only other Travelers start before last year, Thompson, then an amateur, opened with rounds of 65-67 before fading on the weekend.
Former top-ranked amateur Patrick Cantlay, who shot last year's lowest round on Tour (60) at River Highlands, will make his professional debut at 8:29 a.m. Thursday. He'll go off the 10th tee with 2011 NCAA champ John Peterson (T4 at Olympic), who also has since turned pro, and Ryo Ishikawa.
"I think this timing makes sense for me," Cantlay said from Hartford, "being able to start somewhere where I'm comfortable and I have good memories."
Cantlay, who would have been a junior at UCLA in the fall, also will play in the AT&T National at Congressional and the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia the next two weeks. He says he will solicit more sponsor's exemptions after that, and it's a good bet he'll get plenty. Cantlay made the cut in all five Tour starts last year, with his best a T9 at the RBC Canadian Open, and he played alongside Tiger Woods at the Frys.com Open-and beat him 69-73 in the first round.
There is no pro sports team in Hartford, so the Travelers is kind of a big deal. The tournament's association with Sammy Davis Jr., made it the Bob Hope Classic of the East Coast, and the event still draws celebrities like Joe Pesci, Bill Murray and Bill Belichick. Watson threw out the first pitch at a Mets game at Citi Field on Monday, and the top-ranked sports-talk-radio teams from Boston and New York will be broadcasting live from River Highlands during the tournament.
This is a different kind of course, where players will make many more birdies than they did at Olympic. Does that favor long hitters? Short hitters? It favors both: "Bubba-long" Watson beat "Corey-short" Pavin in a playoff in 2010.
Strange but true: This week's best dark-horse pick is probably the guy who won the tournament last year, Fredrik Jacobson. Although he's been relatively quiet in the last 12 months, the Swedish Seve is beginning to find his form. After taking some time off to rest his sore back, he got into contention at Olympic Club before a final-round 75 dropped him into a tie for 15th place.
Short game: Martin Kaymer will attract a crowd at the Euro tour's BMW International Open in Cologne, Germany, a half-hour drive away from Kaymer's home town of Mettmann. Kaymer finished tied for 15th at the U.S. Open. Paul Casey will try to find his game after a nagging shoulder injury forced him to WD last week. Retief Goosen is coming off a T10 at Olympic Club. … Of the 12 Nationwide tour players who made it into the field at the U.S. Open, seven made the cut, including Casey Wittenberg (T10), who earned an exemption into next year's U.S. Open at Merion. Aaron Watkins (T15) had never played in a major. All seven will be in action at this week's Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open at Crestview C.C. … The Champions Tour's Montreal Championship moves to the Vercheres course at La Vallee du Richelieu, which has hosted a pair of Canadian Opens and the 1994 Skins Game. … Pavin, who lost a sudden-death playoff at the Travelers two years ago, will play with the seniors in Montreal, where he finished T4 last year. John Cook shot 63-66-66 to break the tournament record and win by three in 2011. … The LPGA also heads north for the inaugural Manulife Financial LPGA Classic at the Grey Silo Golf Course in Ontario. The field includes Shanshan Feng, who recently became the first player from mainland China to win a major on any tour, and second-ranked Stacy Lewis, who has won twice in her last five starts.