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Travelers sets up well for first-time wins

CROMWELL, Conn. – Bubba Watson won his first PGA Tour event at last year’s Travelers Championship, becoming the third golfer in five seasons to break through at the Connecticut event.

J.J. Henry, a Connecticut native, won in 2006 and Hunter Mahan took the first of his three career PGA Tour wins on the course in 2007.

Mahan said he doesn’t think that’s just coincidence. The tournament starting Thursday, a week after the U.S. Open, sets up well for more inexperienced golfers.

“This is an opportunity for a lot of young guys to play well, like me and J.J. and Bubba,” he said. “You’re going to make a lot of birdies out here. It’s not like an Augusta-type golf course where you have to learn it over time. You can come out here right off the get-go and play well.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the Travelers comes when many of the top players are home resting, and others aren’t mentally at the top of their game.

“There is such a buildup to (the Open) like no other tournament has, so the week after that you kind of get a bit flat in the middle of the week,” said Geoff Ogilvy, who will be playing the TPC River Highlands for the first time in 10 years. “You really want to be intense, but it’s hard.”

Watson acknowledged that gave him an advantage last year, when he came into Connecticut after missing the Open.

“I got here mad that I wasn’t in the Open and then I somehow won,” he said. “So yeah, that might have some effect on it that you’re energized and you’re ready to go and you’re mad that you weren’t in a major, so now you’re ready to go at the Travelers.”

Watson overcame a six-stroke deficit during the final round to force a playoff with Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank and won on the second playoff hole. Watson is hoping to become the first back-to-back champion in Connecticut since Phil Mickelson won in 2001 and 2002.

Since that victory, Watson has won twice more: at Torrey Pines in January, and at the Zurich Classic in April. He is second in the FedEx cup standings, and credits his recent success to the confidence that came with winning in Connecticut.

“It showed me that I can play the game of golf,” he said. “It showed me that by winning here I can play with the guys. I belonged out here, I guess. It just gave me confidence, going forward the rest of my career, no matter how long or how short.”

Mickelson isn’t here this year, nor is U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy or the injured Tiger Woods, who has never played in the tournament.

But tournament director Nathan Grube said the field includes Padraig Harrington, Zach Johnson, Anthony Kim and Rickie Fowler.

“There’s nothing like accomplishing a big goal, and that’s the goal of every PGA Tour player is to win, especially when you’re just coming out of college or the Nationwide Tour,” Mahan said. “There is no better feeling.”