Feeling a reprieve from U.S. Open life, Spieth, Johnson lead with 63
CROMWELL, Conn. – Like liberated golf soldiers set loose from the hostile clutches of the USGA, the tour players at The Travelers Championship flew freely with birdies and eagles in Round 1 Thursday at TPC River Highlands.
Leading the charge, not surprisingly, were major champions who’d had varying levels of survival at the torturous test known as Shinnecock Hills last week in the U.S. Open. Multi-major winners Zach Johnson and Jordan Spieth shot seven-under-par 63s, Johnson in the a.m. and Spieth the afternoon on the 6,841-yard course. They were one ahead of Peter Malnati, Brian Harman and Rory McIlroy, he of four major titles. At 65 were Matt Jones, Paul Casey and Beau Hossler. Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Jason Day were among 14 golfers at 66. Patrick Reed shot 72.
McIlroy would have been at 63 if not for his lone bogey of the day on the par-4 18th, where he played sloppy from his second shot in. He had birdied Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, and 13 to 15 before the final-hole blemish.
“I played really well today,” he said. “I feel like the work that I did over the weekend sort of started to pay off already. It was nice to see the shots I was playing right there. Being able to work the ball both ways was something I wasn't quite as comfortable doing last week. Obviously, you never want to miss a cut in a major, but it might have been a blessing in disguise for the rest of the year.”
This is the 12th consecutive year The Travelers has backed up the U.S. Open, and the friendly fairways of River Highlands allow those who play both events to sow their oats again with milder challenges that don’t include burned-out greens and monster rough. Fifty players who played at Shinnecock are at The Travelers this week. Johnson had tied for 12th, while Spieth and McIlroy missed the cut. Harman had tied for 36th.
Johnson was impressive with an outgoing 33, but went off with six straight birdies on 11 to 16 before making bogey on 17. When you’re on a birdie streak, he said, you both stay in the moment and get excited. “That felt great,” he said. “The ever-competitor in me felt like it could have been more. I actually lipped out my chip on 10, lipped out for eagle on 13. So I’m saying all that, but yet I made some putts and hit quality shots.”
Spieth, the defending champion, had said that he was upset that he didn’t make the weekend on Long Island because, as Tommy Fleetwood showed, a low score from someone back in the pack could have taken the title. Spieth went out in four under Thursday, which included another hole-out from a bunker, as he did in winning last year, this time for eagle-3 on No. 5. He added four more birdies on the back and had his lone bogey when he drove into the water on the short par-4 15th. His stat sheet showed he hit 12 of 14 fairways, 15 greens in regulation and had 26 putts.
Spieth didn’t want to put too much emphasis on one round, however. “I wouldn’t say it was big or necessary or anything,” he said. “I’ve been sticking to the process. I’ve been very positive about making progress from how I got pretty off earlier this year. So it’s good to see a good score. Those are obviously nice to see, but still a long way to go. It’s Round 1. Just glad. The first rounds have been kind of detrimental to me, so it’s nice to be in the thick of things.”
The main U.S. Open survivor, champion Brooks Koepka, to his credit kept his Travelers commitment and played, but he had been given time off from the Wednesday pro-am and did not need to do a pre-tournament media interview. He only arrived late Wednesday afternoon and went to the range for a short session. He said he never considered withdrawing. “No, this was always on the schedule,” he said. “I had three months off in the beginning of the season, so this was a place we wanted to come. I knew I was going to play here. I committed to coming, so I’m not going to back out.”
Koepka began on the back nine in the morning draw and started strong with birdies on 11 to 14. On his back nine, however, he predictably hit a wall. He birdied Nos. 2 and 6, but bogeyed 4, 5, 7 and 9. The ninth was most telling as he three-putted a birdie putt of six feet, but a 31-37—68 was not bad for what he had gone through to get to Cromwell. He admitted his focus and attention weren’t sharp toward the end.
“I just ran out of gas,” he said. “I’m exhausted mentally. I’m excited to go home and nap. I tried to get some rest when I was back home, but we got home at about 4:30, fell asleep by 4:45, and I woke up, [neighbor] Dustin [Johnson] was in my living room at 8 o’clock. He came over on the boat to say hi. So it was not as much rest as I would have liked. But it just feels good to be back out playing. I’m still playing well, so I’m not too worried about today.”