The billboards on I-91 say SEE BUBBA BOOM and IT'S HUNTER SEA-SON. Webb Simpson, who has just won the U.S. Open, is also in the field for the 60th anniversary of the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands, a quirky course in the rolling hills of the Connecticut River Valley. No one is watching as James Driscoll, the last man on the practice green at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, works on his putting stroke while grooving to Pearl Jam through a pair of white earbuds.
Despite what you see on TV, this is the way most of the golf is played on the PGA Tour: anonymously. Driscoll, 34, has never won. He's coming off a 2011 in which he finished fifth in Hartford, his best result there, but was in danger of losing his Tour card until a T12-finish at Disney. The 2012 Travelers is just as big a week for Driscoll as it is for anyone else. In a sense, it's bigger. As a product of nearby Brookline, Mass., he's pretty close to being a local boy, and his parents and brothers and their families will make the trek to Hartford to watch him play early Thursday and late Friday. After his first round, Driscoll will drive to the bus station to pick up his girlfriend, April, and her mother, who has never watched a golf tournament.
"There are a few other things going on that week, nothing crazy," he says. "I'll leave a few more tickets at will call, but my parents have been to enough tournaments that they can fend for themselves. And this is really it as far as a home game goes. I haven't made it to the second playoff event" — the big-money Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston — "since it became the second playoff event."
Since losing to Jeff Quinney in the finals of the 2000 U.S. Amateur and turning pro, Driscoll has never quite broken through on Tour. His near-misses include playoff losses to Tim Petrovic (2005, New Orleans) and Zach Johnson (2009, Texas Open), but Driscoll, a two-time Massachusetts State Amateur champion, has remained upbeat about the up-and-down life of a Tour pro.
He's done it in part by taking the long view, in part by hedging his bets. On Friday, over breakfast at the sprawling, utilitarian Crowne Plaza in Cromwell, the talk is of an impending thunder storm that will very likely affect play, but Driscoll and April are plotting out a trip to a nearby gym called Work Out World ("WOW!"). He's fired an opening-round 68 — a solid start, although well off the lead — but the golf will wait. Driscoll eats a few eggs and some fruit, nothing heavy, and they head out in Driscoll's sporty Audi. (He keeps apartments in south Boston and Jupiter, Fla., and is therefore driving his own car for the week of the Travelers.)
The gym is massive, and Driscoll works out for two hours, every so often consulting a worn piece of paper that takes him through his regimen. No one seems to recognize him as a professional athlete. April also works out. By the end of Driscoll's session, which includes stretching and lifting, he is drenched in sweat and his white shirt is scuffed around his shoulders with black marks from the floor.
"It gives you something to think about besides golf," Driscoll says of his fitness routine. "And if you miss the cut, but you get three good workouts, you still feel like you're going in the right direction. In golf there are so many things you can't control, but you can go to the gym. Plus it just makes you feel good."
As predicted, the second round is plagued by rain and lightning delays — a rough introduction to the Tour for April's mom. Driscoll's day ends after just two holes and a lot of waiting around. At least he can count on another good dinner with friends and family at the Italian place down the road from the Crowne Plaza. When the couple retire to their hotel room, they lounge about and read magazines, including The Economist; Driscoll and April, who owns a small jewelry company and works for a real estate developer, read it together to keep from losing touch with the outside world.
Playing almost his entire second round Saturday morning, Driscoll shoots 66. The afternoon brings another 66. He's tied for third place, two behind 54-hole leaders Brian Davis and Roland Thatcher. Excitement begins to build for the local kid who grew up playing the course at the Charles River Country Club. The Sunday Boston Globe runs a piece headlined: "Driscoll in favorable position: First tour victory is within his reach." He chips in for birdie on the first hole of the final round, then birdies the third and sixth holes, twice tying for the lead. It seems that maybe, just maybe, Driscoll will have his own Hartford billboard in 2013.
And then it all falls apart. Driscoll hits his drive out of bounds right on 10 and makes double bogey. He drives it out of bounds left on 14 — "by like an inch," he says — and badly overcorrects with his next effort. He chips onto the green with his fifth shot and three-putts for a quadruple-bogey 8. The end result: a 72, six off the pace. This will not be his coming-out party after all.
"It's kind of a weird one," Driscoll says. "In a lot of ways I was so close to getting my first win, and had such a tough back nine, but I know I wasn't hitting the ball that well. I was getting away with some errant shots. I just played pretty efficient golf, and it got away from me at the end."
The Driscoll clan went their separate ways Sunday night, James driving back to Boston with April and her mom. It had been a good week. He'd gotten in some workouts, eaten some fine pasta, and made a cool $75,000. He would enjoy the next few days, too: some rare R&R in his own home before getting back on the road. Next stop: Bethesda, Md.