Travelers Championship: Course Insight

Trying to generate interest in a PGA Tour event the week after a major championship can be a struggle. The tournament is perceived as a snooze-fest. The world’s top players often take much needed time off. Even the fans need time to recuperate after a brutal post-major comedown. That is unless we’re talking about the Travelers Championship, which always attracts some of the biggest names in the game, and draws some of the largest crowds on Tour all year.

This year three of the top-5 players in the world, and six of the top-20 will tee it up on Pete Dye-designed TPC River Highlands, including Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Justin Thomas. The course is only 6,841-yard long with just two par-5s, but this par-70 layout utilizes narrow fairways, an abundance of bunkers, and firm, fast conditions to reward intelligence and precision more than brute force and strength.

Approach view of No.16 at TPC River Highlands

TPC River Highlands feature a great mix of long and short holes, with gently rolling, bluegrass fairways framed by charming corridors of maple, oak, pine, and sycamore trees. Bluegrass fescue rough is challenging but fair. Numerous lakes and ponds are easy on the eyes, but sometimes not on the scorecard. Still, good shots here are not punished, which is evidenced by the last 23 events producing champions who recorded double-digit, under-par scores.

Last year the most difficult hole on the course was the par-4, 481-yard No. 4 (45 birdies, 118 bogeys or worse). Playing as the longest par-4 on the course, the hole doglegs hard to the right with bunkers protecting the left side and trees on the right. Three deep bunkers on the left side of the green wait to eat up errant shots on approach, and even players who safely hit the green are faced with treacherous putts as the narrow green is severely sloped from back to front.

The four-hole closing stretch on holes 15 through 18 plays around an enormous four-acre lake, and provides the drama of pure stadium golf that’s incredibly fun for fans and players alike. Stewart Cink, who won here in 2008, called this stretch “the four most exciting finishing holes in a group anywhere in the world.”

No. 15 is a par-4, 296-yard driveable hole for just about everyone in the field. Players who overcook it off the tee can find the pond and bunker guarding the left side of the green, and there’s a smaller protecting the front right. Shots that barely reach the green will likely roll back off as the green is pitched in the front and back. You can expect to see a lot of birdies here. Last year it played as the easiest hole on the course, giving up 174 birdies, while dishing out only 62 bogeys or worse.

The par-3, 171-yard 16th hole requires a very precise shot to clear the forced carry over a pond that can still gobble up balls that land on the front of a green sloping back to the water. A cluster of four bunkers protect the back and sides of the narrow green which come into play with difficult pin positions. The ideal position here is below the hole as tee shots hit long will be left with lightning-fast, downhill putts that can easily roll back off the green. Last year No. 16 was the eighth most difficult hole, surrendering 75 birdies, while dishing out 82 bogeys or worse.

GPS View of No. 17 from the 18 Birdies App

Hitting the fairway on the treacherous, par-4, 420-yard, 17th hole is crucial to having any reasonable shot of hitting the green on the approach. The tee shot is hit from an elevated tee box to a very narrow landing area, with menacing bunkers protecting the left side of the fairway and a large lake wandering along the entire right side. The approach requires a complete carry over a pond to reach the green and can be very intimidating when hitting out of the rough. Last year No.17 was the third most difficult hole, giving up only 60 birdies, while handing out 105 bogeys or worse.

No. 18 is a par-4, 444-yard hole that has the potential to crown a champion or crush a contender, and it has Pete Dye’s fingerprints all over it. Tee shots are hit slightly uphill into a narrow fairway that’s predominantly bowl shaped with bunkers strategically placed on both sides near the landing zone. Two of the largest and deepest bunkers on the course protect the green on the right side, which is where the Sunday pin position is traditionally located. Last year No. 18 gave up 86 birdies, while dishing out 75 bogies or worse.

Players To Watch

Jordan Spieth has been a green hitting machine this season, ranked third on Tour, and second in the field this week. Spieth is making his first appearance at TPC River Highlands, and this is a course that suits his game perfectly. Spieth gained some momentum in his final round at Erin Hills and I expect that to continue at the Travelers. Mark Spieth down for his seventh top-10 finish this season.

Jason Day is ranked 130th on Tour in Par 4 Scoring, 144th in Driving Accuracy, and 162nd in Strokes Gained: Approach, and these are the three key stats this week at TPC River Highlands. Granted, Day might not use driver as much as he would on a longer course, or at least maybe choke down if he stays with the big stick, but he’s simply not playing well enough in the key areas needed to perform well here. I don’t expect him to miss another cut, but also don’t expect him to finish inside the top-25.

Winner Prediction

Expect Rory McIlroy to bounce back in a huge way from a disappointing missed cut at the U.S. Open and pick up his first win of the season. Like Spieth, Rory is making his first appearance at the Travelers, and I have to believe he’s embarrassed with and upset by his early exit at Erin Hills. McIlroy has four top-10 finishes in seven events this season, and he’s had great success throughout his career on Pete Dye courses, primarily because of his iron play. Unless he absolutely implodes on the greens, this is McIlroy’s tournament to lose.

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