Bubba Watson tees off on the eleventh hole during first round of the U.S. Open golf championship at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Thursday, June 16, 2016. Watson is at two under par when play was suspended for the day. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
Focus hasn't always been Bubba Watson's forte, but he showed up this week in Cromwell, Conn., for more than a ceremonial defense of his Travelers Championship title.
The world's sixth-ranked golfer is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and he will hop on a plane to Rio de Janeiro after his final round to represent the United States in the Olympics. But if Watson wants a breather before the grueling FedExCup playoffs that begin Aug. 25 and the Ryder Cup Sept. 30-Oct. 2, he must focus on the task at hand this week.
Watson enters the Travelers ranked ninth in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings, one spot outside of the eight automatic spots for captain Davis Love III's team. He acknowledged that he might add the Wyndham Championship on Aug. 18-21 to his schedule if he doesn't play well this week.
Watson doesn't typically play the final tournament before the playoffs, but with the John Deere Classic taking place during the Olympics, the Travelers presents Watson with his best opportunity to improve his Ryder Cup position and guarantee himself some time off.
"My thoughts are, play good here," Watson said. "I don't want to go off a (captain's) pick. I'll take a pick all day long, but it's better to set yourself on that team than to rely on a pick."
Watson shot four rounds in the 60s and beat England's Paul Casey in a playoff to win the Travelers Championship for the second time last year, earning a $1.152 million paycheck and 500 FedExCup points. He overpowered the TPC River Highlands course en route to a 16-under 264 during regulation, but Watson will tackle a track that has undergone some significant changes since last summer.
Established in 1928, the TPC River Highlands has been one of the most popular stops on the PGA Tour since 1984. It gives up a lot of birdies and the scoring is traditionally low, but this year's tournament features new sight lines around the closing stretch. That begins with the par-4 15th, which will play just under 300 yards from almost every hole location. The tee box was raised, five bunkers were removed, including three to open the view of the water back-left of the green, and the putting surface was reshaped to open locations closer to the water.
"What they did on 15 was fairly subtle," said Peter Malnati, who has a win and three top-10s this season. "But it's still going to make a big difference."
The 16th and 17th holes also underwent subtle changes to open up sight lines, and around 60 bunkers were removed or moved into more strategic places to tighten up the course. The intention was to force players to be more strategic off the tee.
"(The 15th is) a neat hole, it's a great amphitheater area there, too, with 15, 16 and 17 and that whole vicinity," said 2006 Travelers champion and Fairfield, Conn. native J.J. Henry. "In my opinion, in growing up here and going here as a kid and stuff, it's probably one of the best spots, if you will, to watch golf on the PGA Tour kind of around that three-hole stretch."
Also in the field this week for the $6.6 million purse ($1.188 million winner's share) are two of Watson's U.S. Olympic teammates, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar.
Reed has a pair of runner-up finishes this week, but missed the cut at the Travelers last year. Kuchar did not play the event in 2015. Reed and Kuchar also have Ryder Cup positioning on their minds as ironically, along with Fowler the four Olympic teammates sit 9-12 in the U.S. team rankings.
Reed received his Olympic team gear and golf bag this week, and debuted it during practice.
"I'm obviously very excited to play for the Olympics, if you couldn't tell, I mean I'm in red, white and blue today, and I'm actually debuting the Olympics bag today," Reed said Tuesday. "I thought it would be great for the fans to see. It's the only time they'll actually be able to see it is on TV at the Olympics, so I was proud to be able to bring it out and wear the colors proud this week."
Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen, Germany's Alex Cejka and Ireland's Padraig Harrington are the other three Olympians in field this week.
So while the rest of the world prepares for the opening to the Rio Games on Friday, there is a lot on the line for many of the marquee names in the field this week. Watson figures to be very high on Love III's captain's pick even if he doesn't play well this week or overtake Brandt Snedeker for the eighth automatic spot, but he has another way to put a feather on his Ryder Cup resume.
"I figure a gold medal would help," Watson said with a smile.