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2019 Travelers Championship Preview and Picks

2019 Travelers Championship Preview and Picks

There is no rest for the weary for fans of the PGA Tour. Off the heels of a wonderful U.S. Open that saw Gary Woodland win his first career major (and one where the USGA managed to avoid any controversy), the best golfers in the world head back to the east coast for one of the most popular events on the schedule.

Here’s an overview of TPC River Highlands and everything there is to know to make picks for the 2019 Travelers Championship.

The Field

Not so long ago, this tournament was overlooked by most of the biggest names in golf. In 2010, then 76th ranked Bubba Watson won his first career tournament over an aging Corey Pavin, Ricky Barnes, Scott Verplank, Chad Campbell and Chris Riley. While some of those players certainly had high moments on the PGA Tour, they weren’t exactly putting butts in the seats.

Thanks to a passionate fanbase, tremendous financial and logistical support from Travelers Insurance and an underrated and likeable golf course, the strength of the field this week is one of the best on the PGA Tour. The winner of the 2019 Travelers Championship will receive 58 points in the Official World Golf Rankings, more than the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the Charles Schwab Challenge and the Wells Fargo Championship.

Vying for the win this week is World #1 Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth. They highlight a deep field that comprises 22 of the Top 50 golfers in the world.

Travlers also utilized their sponsorship exemptions very well, as a handful of prominent college stars make their professional debut this week. They are a pair of Oklahoma St. studs in Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolf, Colin Morikawa of Cal-Berkley, and Justin Suh of USC. If you haven’t heard of them before, you will soon enough. These players are the future stars on the PGA Tour.

The Golf Course

For years this tournament was known as the Greater Hartford Open, first played in 1952 at Weathersfield Country Club. In the 1980’s, the PGA Tour bought the former Edgewood Country Club and rebranded it as part of their TPC golf course network. They brought in the legendary Pete Dye to rebuild the golf course and dubbed it TPC Connecticut. The tournament has been played there ever since.

In 1989, the golf course underwent an renovation spearheaded by Pete Dye disciple Bobby Weed with consultation from PGA pros Howard Twitty and Roger Maltbie. Though the thought of improving upon a Pete Dye golf course is hard to fathom, they managed to do so. Their newest design took the Back Nine down a valley near the the train tracks that run alongside the Connecticut River. The golf course then joined the 1980’s fad of becoming a sub-development for homes built around the golf course (which is a trait I both despise and am jealous of, as I’d sit on my porch in my home off the 13th hole and judge every apporach shot into the green), and in 1990 the golf course was renamed TPC River Highlands.

Front Nine

To be blunt, the Front Nine at TPC River Highlands isn’t anything to write home about. There isn’t much trickery over the first nine holes, everything is almost all out in front of the player, and besides the 2nd hole there is very little elevation change tee-to-green. There are some slight resemblances to a typical Pete Dye golf course experience, primarily with regard to well placed bottlenecking of the fairways, inconveniently placed bunkers and green complexes angled away from the directional path of the hole to emphasize accuracy off the tee. I’ve never played TPC River Highlands so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but after charting the golf course I don’t feel very inspired by the front nine.

The back nine, however, is a totally different story.

Back Nine

This side of the golf course feels like an adventure during the trek from 10 to 18. The challenge begins with No. 10, a hole that features a very narrow corridor off the tee that opens up about 300 yards down the fairway. Anyone who can manage to hit it over all the trees (see three time winner Bubba Watson) has a tremendous advantage than anyone who’s forced to lay up off the tee.

No. 11 is a downhill Par 3, with the green sitting about 50 feet below the tee box. While the yardage is short, players will have to account for the drop in elevation as well as avoid any of the three bunkers that surround the small green. After this, the players will play the short Par 4 12th and Par 5 13th. The 12th does not offer much room for error off the tee with OB on the left and three fairway bunkers on the right into a bottlenecking fairway. On the 13th, OB remains on the left, and the players will have to navigate the large water hazard all the way down the right side of the hole.

The Travelers Championship has the reputation of producing very exciting finishes to their tournaments, and the stretch from 14-18 is the reason why:

Hole 14 – 421 Yards

This is my favorite hole on the golf course. You can’t tell from the overhead view, but this hole plays up and down a hill tee-to green. The tee box and the green are roughly at the same elevation, however the top of the fairway approximately 250 yards off the fairway sits 30 feet above the player, and the approach shot into the green sits 30 feet below them. Players likely won’t see exactly where their ball lands off the tee, and then they’ll have to account for the elevation change down into the green for their 2nd. Properly executed and this is a scoring hole, but bogey can be in play with a lack of control off the tee or on the approach.

Hole 15-17

This stretch of holes is one of  the best viewing spots for anyone who does not own a home off one of the fairways. The best place to be is to the right of the 16th green, as the spectator can watch the players play the exciting and driveable Par 4 15th, the Par 3 16th over the water and the 17th that features a forced carry over same said water and a green with a false front. Here is where the tournament usually tightens up, either with a player getting red hot over this stretch or someone who makes a mess of these holes.

18th Hole – 444 Yards

While the design of the hole is nothing special, it’s the huge fanbase that sits in an amphitheater setting that makes this hole memorable. Hartford has some of the best fans on the PGA Tour, and the whole community treats this event as if the Whalers have been resurrected. As someone who also lives in a minor league sports town, I can totally relate how passionate they are for their tournament. Whenever a huge sporting event comes into town, it dominates the headlines and creates a buzz in the city. And as shown back in 2017, they can get pretty excited around that 18th green…

Betting Strategies

TPC River Highlands is the shortest golf course the players will take on this year on the PGA Tour. It’s just over 6,800 yards long, meaning that many players can opt to leave driver in the bag and not sacrifice much off the tee for a comfortable approach yardage into the green.

While Rory McIlroy overpowered Hamilton Golf and Country Club a few weeks ago, the tight tree-lined fairways constricted the players off the tee and limited their club choices. TPC River Highlands, however, is better equipped to allow someone to take aggressive lines off the tee with the driver and overrun the place. Though there has been some repositioning of fairway bunkers over the last few years to better protect the golf course, a long player can bomb it over them with only the worry of their tee shot landing in the rough for a short shot into the green. For the most part, thick forest areas are well off the fairways and only accessible with very off line tee shots. Particularly on the front nine, there’s not a whole lot of penal areas out there.

These are some of the reasons why when one looks at recent leaderboards there are all different varieties of golfers with varying degree of skill sets. Bubba Watson is considered the horse-for-the-course with three wins, and he employs a bomb and gouge style of play and takes aggressive and creative lines off the tee to gain an advantage over the field. Jim Furyk owns the course record with a 58 in 2016, and he is known as a short, accurate tactician who’s strengths are with his wedges. And players like Russell Knox and Jordan Spieth, winners of 2016 and 2017, are considered good all-around ball-strikers tee to green.

There really isn’t a particular “type” who is the prototypical model of golfer to try and target. Therefore, the players I’ll be looking at for DraftKings, props and futures bets are guys who do a little of everything well tee-to-green. Balanced players who are generally good ball-strikers and while not necessarily elite in one area, they are good at most areas of their game.

If there were any true advantages on this golf course, most approach shots on the Par 4’s are between 125-150 yards, so look at proximity to the hole statistics when handicapping players. Two of the Par 3’s are over 200 yards long, and it’s vital to take advantage of both Par 5’s because they are reachable in two and scoring will be very low this weekend, which will make performance on approach shots 200+ yards important.

Lastly, between a combination of a wet spring and heavy rains this week leading up to the tournament, the course will play a little longer, slower, and make the fairways artificially wider. Longer hitters should have a slight advantage over shorter ones this week. While the rough off the fairway will be thick because of the moisture, the combination of dialing it back off the tee with irons and fairway metals and the slower fairways helping to keep the golf ball in the short grass should help them out this week.

Here’s who I like (with odds courtesy of mybookie.ag):

Futures Bets

Justin Thomas – 18/1: Last week did not go well for Justin Thomas, who struggled at Pebble Beach and was one of the few big name players who missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Many people blamed the poor performance on both rust and a lingering arm injury.

Looking back at his last few tournaments, the only area where he’s truly struggling is his putting, which certainly can be attributed to course rust. But his ball striking tee-to-green are right back to the levels they were back before his injury and before he started to tail off. At the U.S. Open and the Canadian Open he gained 1.67 strokes per round tee-to-green on the field, with solid numbers both off the tee and on his approach shots.

That at least gives me confidence that any lingering effects with the arm injury appears to be behind him. If it was still bothering him, it would likely be reflective in his recent ball striking numbers. The putting will eventually round back into form, and at 18/1 I’m willing to take a good price on him to find out if it does this week.

Paul Casey  – 20/1: Casey will be a trendy pick this week because of his recent play and his historical performance at TPC River Highlands. In his career at TPC River Highlands, Casey has gained almost 2.5 strokes on the field per round and parlayed that into three Top 5 finishes.

His recent play certainly warrants all the attention he’ll get from bettors. Casey continues to be one of the most consistent ball strikers on the PGA Tour, gaining 2.17 strokes per round on the field tee-to-green over his last four tournaments, and his normally balky putter actually hasn’t been too big of a disaster lately.

He should have claimed the win last year before he had one of his infamous back nine implosions. Given his track record and his form, however, 20/1 is a great price for him.

Tony Finau – 35/1: To say Finau has disappointed after his monster 2018 is an understatement. A year after he finished in the Top 10 at three of four majors, the only time he’s truly felt like he’s been in contention was at the 2019 Masters and at Colonial. Otherwise, he hasn’t been a factor at all and is coming into this tournament on the heels of two missed cuts.

Liking Finau at 35/1 to win the tournament is more of a hunch on my part, and I wouldn’t recommend using him in formats like DraftKings, or one and dones, or on one end of a matchup prop. But at his best, Finau can overrun a short golf course with his driving irons, and like Bubba he can take aggressive and creative lines off the tee to set up short approaches. That’s a recipe he used to success at Colonial a few weeks ago, and it’s one he could employ once again.

He has shown over his last few tournaments that there is good ball striking numbers out there for him. He has strong performances tee-to-green at the Masters, the PGA Championship and Colonial in his recent form that could be recalled in an instant. While this would be the only play I would recommend to back Finau, it could be the time where he finally records his first legitimate win on the PGA Tour.

Charley Hoffman – 66/1: Hoffman was a glaring omission at the U.S. Open, failing to earn an automatic exemption into the event and falling short in sectional qualifying. It’s been a bit of a struggle for him in 2019 but he is showing some solid form tee-to-green to be worthy of consideration as a winner of the event.

His season long ball striking numbers look solid. He’s 66th on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained – Tee-to-Green, 63rd in Strokes Gained – Off-the-Tee, and 28th in Strokes Gained – Approach. He also ranks 1st in proximity on approach shots 125-150 yards and 50th in proximity from 200+ yards out. While he did not perform well in his last outing, his problems have largely been with his driver and that shouldn’t be a club he’ll have to rely on much this week. He can then rely on fairway metals and irons, which are clubs he’s hitting well lately.

Hoffman has a great track record at TPC River Highlands, gaining just shy of 1.5 strokes per round on the field in his career there. A win this week would get his career back on track, and it’s not out of left field that he does just that.

Adam Hadwin – 70/1: Like Hoffman, Hadwin was left on the sidelines for the U.S. Open after failing to gain an exemption into the tournament. It was unfortunate because his form of late has been very good and Pebble Beach was a golf course that would suit his all-around solid game.

On the heels of a great performance at the RBC Canadian Open and in front of a friendly crowd, Hadwin should be in perfect position to post another strong finish. His ball striking wasn’t very good at the Memorial, but it was more than respectable at Quail Hollow, Bethpage Black and the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. Hadwin gained over 1.4 strokes per round tee-to-green on the field in those three tournaments. Hadwin also ranks highly on the year in proximity distances with his wedges and his long irons, clubs he’ll have to rely on this week.

With a chip on his shoulder following a missed cut, Hadwin should be in the mix this weekend and is worthy of a long shot bet to win the tournament.

Tournament Props

Top 20 Props – Paul Casey (+110) and Marc Leishman (+135): Casey was discussed at length in the futures section, and given his form and his record at TPC River Highlands I like his price at +110 for a Top 20 finish.

As for Leishman, I like his form over his last few tournaments. His ball striking has improved from the beginning of the year and he once again is at a golf course where he won’t be asked to hit driver a lot on the weekend. He also played better than his finish at the U.S. Open suggested, as other than a rough 2nd round he played very well overall. For those who don’t want to put down a futures bet on either, Top 20 plays on each are worth exploring.

Adam Hadwin -115 over Jason Kokrak: While Jason Kokrak season long stats look strong and checks a lot of boxes in certain key areas, he’s slowed down a bit since his torrent stretch where he had four Top 10’s in six starts. Since then, his ball striking stats have tailed off a bit, and his putter is starting to regress back to the mediocre form he’s primarily known as. His hot putting is what propelled him up the leaderboard, and with both that and his ball striking regressing I don’t like him against a peaking player like Hadwin.

Francesco Molinari -110 over Tommy Fleetwood: Maybe it’s an overreaction since I loved Fleetwood at Pebble Beach and he greatly missed the mark of my expectations. The truth of the matter, however, is that Fleetwood hasn’t really been on point since letting the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass slip through his fingers. Since then he has not been sharp with his ball striking and on golf courses he theoretically should be a good fit on, so why should we expect anything different this week? I like Molinari this week over him, who is a good fit at TPC River Highlands, comes in with solid recent ball striking and appears to have shook off his loss at the Masters.

Golf analyst for SportsGamblingPodcast.com, providing insight on news and betting tips for the PGA Tour, as well as commentary and banter on the World of Sports. Follow him on Twitter @SteveSchirmer

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