Lessons learned at the Travelers Championship
The Travelers Championship reinforced two truths about the PGA Tour:
1) The depth of talent is remarkable when a 40-year-old journeyman pro, in the field on a sponsor's exemption, can take a 25-year-old, can't-miss prospect to a sudden-death playoff.2) It's awfully hard to win.
Hunter Mahan, a product of Oklahoma State's powerhouse collegiate program, made a 2-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole Sunday to beat Jay Williamson, a Nationwide Tour refugee, at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn.
It was Mahan's first victory on Tour and came in his fourth season. Asked if he thought he should have won earlier in his career, Mahan said, "Not really. After you play out here for a little bit, you realize this is hard. Being a professional golfer, it's not easy to win out here."
Williamson was disappointed about not capitalizing on the opportunity -- a victory would have given him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a spot in the 2008 Masters -- but his gritty performance won't soon be forgotten.
"My life certainly changed for the better today but it could have really changed for a lot better," Williamson said. "I have a lot to be proud of. We had a great week. Part of me can't really believe it. Part of me is really upset. Part of me is excited. I've got a huge range of emotions at this point."
Mahan seemingly gave away the tournament when he made back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 and he trailed by one stroke going to the 72nd hole. But he hit his approach to within seven feet and after Williamson missed a 12-footer that would have clinched the victory, Mahan rolled in his birdie putt to force the playoff.
They returned to the 18th tee and this time Mahan hit his approach from 134 yards to within two feet after Williamson stuffed his approach. Williamson pushed his seven-foot birdie attempt to the right and Mahan tapped in for the victory.
"I just kept plugging away," Mahan said. "Jay gave me a little opening on 18 (in regulation) and I'm glad I made it."
Said Williamson: "I played 18 as well as I can play it. I hit two 7-irons in there perfect and I just couldn't make a putt."
Mahan earned $1,080,000 and moved up to 19th in the FedEx Cup point standings. Williamson earned $640,000, the biggest payday of his career. Going into the week, he was seventh on the Nationwide Tour money list with $153,249.
Williamson, a graduate of Trinity College in nearby Hartford, also earned a spot in the Buick Open field this week.
"I really feel like if I was a great putter I would have won by a lot today," said Williamson, whose previous best finish in 279 starts on the PGA Tour was a tie for third at the 2003 BellSouth Classic. "But I know what I need to work on to get to that next level. I learned that I can play with these guys.
"And I learned that I'm going to be a golfer for a while."
Mahan, a two-time All-American at Oklahoma State and runner-up to Ricky Barnes at the 2002 U.S. Amateur, said he got his season turned around after a dust-up with his sports psychologist during U.S. Open qualifying earlier this month.
"It was all in my head," Mahan said. "My psychologist, Neil Smith, caddied for me at the Open qualifier in Dallas and I shot 73 the first round and I was just...not giving up, but not thinking positive about the shots I'm hitting and waiting for bad things to happen. He was disgusted with the way I was acting out there and was like, 'Just leave if you're going to play like this.' And he was 100% right.
"I turned around and shot 63 and qualified and the rest is history. I've played good ever since."
Mahan tied for 13th at the U.S. Open but had only one top-10 finish this year going into the Travelers.
"Knowing that you can win and actually winning are two different things," he said. "And to win it the way I did is just amazing to me. To have to birdie in a playoff, especially after he hit that shot in there, is mind-boggling.
"It was crazy out there. I played really well all day. And Jay was a fighter. He fought the whole day. A couple of times I thought I was going to build up a little bit of a lead and he just made some great shots and some big putts.
"It was tough. I mean, it was so tough."
BIRDIES AND BOGEYS
Birdie: Fred Funk refuses to act his age. He turned 51 on June 14 but continues to play primarily on the PGA Tour, where he still splits fairways and cashes big checks.
Funk hit 27 of 28 fairways on the weekend, finished fifth and passed the $1 million mark for the sixth consecutive year and the ninth time in the last 10 years -- all since he turned 40.
He has pulled off an unusual double this year, winning on both the PGA Tour (Mayakoba Classic) and Champions Tour (Turtle Bay Championship).
He ranks second on the regular tour in driving accuracy (78%), an impressive 13th in scoring average (69.86) and 53rd on the FedEx Cup points list.
Bogey: Vijay Singh has averaged 26.9 starts over the last 10 years thanks to a grueling workout regimen that has kept him in peak shape. But at 44, his body finally might be showing signs of breaking down.
Singh planned to take this week off and said he would get an MRI on his sore right shoulder. Pain flared up during U.S. Open week and hasn't gone away. He also has been bothered by a sore left ankle since he tripped going down stairs to break up a dog fight at his Florida home in March.
Still, Singh shot 66-65 on the weekend to finish solo fourth, his best showing since he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March. He also extended his PGA Tour-best cut streak to 26.
Birdie: The TPC River Highlands course was good to old-timers. Besides Funk and Singh, four others who have blown out 40 candles finished inside the top 10: Williamson, Billy Mayfair and David Toms, all 40; and Tom Lehman, 48.
Bogey: Stuart Appleby has had just one top-25 finish since he tied for seventh at the Masters. He missed the cut at the Travelers, one week after shooting a final-round 79 to fade to a tie for 26th at the U.S. Open.
Birdie: Shigeki Maruyama went into the week without a single top-40 finish this year but showed signs of breaking out of his slump. He played the final six holes in 4-under, shot a season-low 66 and tied for 15th place.
His best previous closing round this year was a 72 at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship.
Bogey: Remember Jeff Quinney's fast start this year? He had consecutive top-10 finishes at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Buick Invitational, FBR Open and Nissan Open.
That must seem like a long time ago to Quinney, who has had just one top-10 since and has missed the cut in five of his last eight starts. He was in good shape after an opening 69 at the Travelers but followed with a trunk-slamming 76.
Birdie: Defending champion J.J. Henry shot a final-round 64 and tied for 13th.
"Obviously, to be the defending champion, to come back and play so well on Sunday meant a lot," Henry said. "I really played solid. I got off to a great start and unfortunately came up a little bit short but all in all it was a great week."
He played the 18th hole in 4-over with a par, two bogeys and a double-bogey.
"That 18th hole kicked me in the you-know-what this week," he said. "I think I played it 4-over par, or who knows, I might have won the tournament again."
On the horizon: Tiger Woods became the youngest player in PGA Tour history to reach 50 victories when he won the 2006 Buick Open, but the proud papa won't be on hand to defend his title at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc, Mich. The field does include Jim Furyk, Darren Clarke, Sean O'Hair and Pablo Martin.
Parting shot: If the regular season ended today, the following former major championship winners would not qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs: Justin Leonard, Paul Azinger, John Daly, Jeff Sluman, Mark Brooks, Larry Mize, David Duval, Fred Couples and Todd Hamilton.
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