API's future now up to the players

By Ryan LavnerMarch 20, 2017, 5:02 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Marc Leishman’s victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational wasn’t even three hours old Sunday when crews began to deconstruct some of the tournament signage and grandstands.

Just like that, they were on to next year.

The first edition of the API without its beloved host was by any measure a resounding success. A strong field assembled. Bay Hill Club & Lodge was presented immaculately. Players and fans paid homage to one of golf’s patriarchs. And Sunday evening, a deserving champion was crowned, as Leishman slipped into a red cardigan sweater, one of Palmer’s favorite pieces of outerwear, not the usual blue blazer.

The PGA Tour has done its part to preserve the legacy of Palmer’s event. The tournament has been elevated in stature, as it raised the purse from $6.3 million to $8.7 million, and offered a three-year exemption to the winner, not the usual two-year free pass.

“This is a new day,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

And now the fate of Arnie’s event is in the players’ hands.

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For all of the pre-tournament kvetching about the jam-packed schedule and strength of field, four of the top 5 players in the world, and 14 of the top 25, came here to Orlando – the second-best showing at the API in the past decade.

When a player plots out his schedule, two of the most important factors are timing and course.

The API is in a difficult spot on the Tour schedule, sandwiched between a pair of World Golf Championship events with the Masters beginning in three weeks. That time crunch doesn’t figure to get any easier in the future, especially if The Players returns to March, as has been rumored.

“We want to put this tournament in the best possible position to succeed,” Monahan said.

What won’t change is the course, and Bay Hill, like most venues on Tour, is either loved or hated by players. Those who play Arnie’s Place each year say that it proves a good test for Augusta, with its premium on ball-striking and speedy greens.

“It was bittersweet,” said Brandt Snedeker. “The best year I’ve ever seen it, he wasn’t here. He would have taken pride and he would have loved a day like (Sunday), seeing us struggle out there. This was his baby, and he didn’t want anybody shooting 7 or 8 under par on it. He would have been smiling all day.”

Graeme McDowell had a unique perspective last week as one of five co-hosts but the only one who played in the tournament. Asked a few months ago to become an ambassador for the event, McDowell views his role as a liaison between the players and tournament officials. That meant attending various pre-tournament functions and soliciting feedback from his peers.

McDowell said Palmer’s loss was felt most on the 18th green Sunday. Palmer usually stood atop the slope to the left of the green, congratulating and thanking players for coming to his event. This year, those duties were handled by past tournament chairmen.

“To look over and be one of the last groups and not see Arnie up on the hill,” Rickie Fowler said, “it’s definitely different.”

And so players were left to honor Palmer in their own way. Fowler, for instance, wore custom shoes with Palmer’s image on the sides and signature on the strap. (He left the shoes and his hat in Palmer’s office, with the message: “We miss you!! Much love!!”) Many players signed a commemorative flag and posed in front of the bronze statue and stitched the colorful umbrella logo on their hats, shirts and bags.

Other tributes were less visible.

“This week was an unsaid opportunity for guys to conduct themselves the way they should and learn from a role model like Palmer,” McDowell said. “Every time I signed an autograph, I’ve made more of an effort. That’s just a subconscious thing.

“It was an opportunity for players to ask themselves: Am I being a role model for kids? Am I doing the right things? How can I be a better professional and a better person?”

The concern is that the API will lose its luster just like the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship has after the tournament’s namesake died in 2006. That year, six of the top 10 players in the world showed up. Four years later, it had only two of the top 20.

The tournament, won last year by Sergio Garcia, usually draws a top-heavy field, with Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth among the recent participants. But it offered only 48 world-ranking points to the winner – or less than the Travelers Championship. With money no longer an inducement to the world’s best players, officials hope a venue change (to Trinity Forest) will help fortify the field.

McDowell is aware that there’s only so much he and the rest of the API tournament committee can do off the course to make the event a must-stop for Tour players.

“There’s only so many bottles of vodka and fillets you can feed them in the players’ lounge,” McDowell said. “We’re spoiled on a week-to-week basis. All these events fight for the .1 percent that keeps guys coming back, but you’re fighting an uphill battle there. If the schedule doesn’t work or the guys don’t like the course, there’s a good chance they’re not going to be there.”

The PGA Tour has done all it can to make these legacy events feel bigger, more relevant and more important.

Whether they survive is solely up to the players. 

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”