(CBSNewYork/CBS Local Sports) — The PGA Tour travels north to Connecticut this week for the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands. This will be the third tournament since golf returned from its coronavirus-forced layoff. However, the Travelers will be the first of the three events to occur on its originally scheduled date. The Charles Schwab Challenge had been slated for May, and the RBC Heritage for April, before both were moved to June.
Golf has proved somewhat adaptable to a socially distanced world where many sports are struggling to find a path back. The already spaced-out game added broad safety measures that include fan-less tournaments and extremely limited access. Proactive testing creates a sort of temporary bubble around each tournament.
But the precautions aren’t foolproof, nor can they be. Nick Watney tested positive last week for COVID-19 and dropped out of the RBC Heritage. This week multiple players withdrew after either contracting the virus or coming in contact with someone who had. Two of those players — Brooks Koepka and Webb Simpson — are ranked in the top five.
The field at the Travelers Championship this week still rises to the caliber of a major, with three of the world’s top-five players and seven of the top 10 in action. That includes Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas.
The world’s best have lived up to their rankings at times over the last two weeks, but have also fallen short. McIlroy shot a Saturday 63 at Colonial but still ended the weekend tied for 32nd, his better finish of the two events. Rahm missed the cut two weeks ago and only managed a 33rd-place tie last week. Thomas has found some consistency with two top-10 finishes.
The deep field at the Travelers includes the bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau, who is knocking on the door to the top 10. He fell one stroke short of the final playoff at the Charles Schwab and held on for another top-10 finish at the RBC Heritage. Jordan Spieth has displayed signs of a resurgence of late. Phil Mickelson will play in his first tournament since turning 50 and qualifying for the senior tour. Bubba Watson, who has won the event three times over the last decade, will also tee it up, as will defending champion, Chez Reavie, and course-record holder, Jim Furyk.
Will we see someone approach Furyk’s round of 58 from 2016? “I think pretty much any one of the players in the field could shoot a score like that again,” said CBS Sports golf analyst Ian Baker-Finch in an interview on Tuesday. “If the greens are in good shape and the weather is nice, we could see someone break 60 again this week.”
It won’t be Tiger Woods, however. The Workday Charity Open in two weeks or the Memorial Tournament the following week seem like the soonest he could return. Both will be held at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. A Tiger sighting seems likely in early August at the PGA Championship, this season’s first major. Whether or not it’s his first of the resumed season remains to be seen.
TPC River Highlands is seen as a shot-maker’s course. But many types of players have found success here. “Typically, a good strategist [excels on this course], someone who can plot their way around the course [and] keep the ball in play,” says Baker-Finch. “But then, of course, you’ve got someone like Bubba Watson, who’s a bomber and hits the ball extremely long, he’s won there three times. Marc Leishman won there. In saying I think you need to plot your way around, any course will suit a long hitter, if he’s in form and driving the ball well and positioning his ball well off the tee.”
TPC River Highlands, a par-70 that measures only 6,841 yards, gives bombers somewhat of an advantage. This old-style test of golf mixes long and short holes. The course is best known for its finishing stretch of holes, particularly the “Golden Triangle,” comprised of holes 15 through 17. The 296-yard par-4 15th is one of the PGA Tour’s more exciting holes, with players tempted to drive the green despite looming water and bunkers. Bisected by water, the 171-yard par-3 16th challenges players with narrow, sloped green. The 17th hole, a 420-yard par-4 covered mostly water, is among the course’s most challenging.
Weather will certainly help determine how the course plays and how low the scores go. (The local forecast looks ideal through Saturday, but could pose problems on Sunday.) “The wind, and the water, the difficulty of certain drivers… driving holes and green speeds, that’s how they have to protect this golf course,” says Baker-Finch. “And usually they get a little bit of a breeze on the river side.”
>>STREAM: Travelers Championship
Here are the favorites:
Rory McIlroy (12-1)
McIlroy has struggled in the two events since the PGA Tour’s restart, finishing nine strokes back at the Charles Schwab and 11 strokes back at the RBC Heritage. He placed 17th at the Travelers in 2017 and 12th in 2018, carding a round of 64 each year. McIlroy remains the top player in the world and will put his season back on track sooner than later.
Bryson DeChambeau (14-1)
The added weight has served DeChambeau well off the tee the last couple of weeks, and he continues to lead the PGA Tour this season in shots gained off the tee. But DeChambeau helped his cause in both events with strong play closer to the green. TPC River Highlands should reward his distance even more. Can he convert that advantage into his first Tour win of 2020?
Justin Thomas (14-1)
Thomas picked up where he left off earlier this season. Aside from two missed cuts, he has yet to finish a Tour event this year outside of the top 10. His best result at the Players was third in 2016. His fourth-round 62 that year was overshadowed that year by Furyk’s 58. But Thomas has proved he can go low if the conditions are right.
Watch the Travelers Championship Saturday, June 27 and Sunday, June 28, 3:00 – 6:00 PM ET on CBS.