Last week’s PGA Tour stop in Hartford was a successful one for three former Georgia Bulldogs and a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, with the two veterans of the group enjoying particularly rewarding finishes on Sunday.
Former Georgia Bulldog Bubba Watson became the first player to win three times on the 2017-18 PGA Tour, capturing his third career title in the Travelers Championship. The 39-year-old Watson shot a final round 63 to win by three strokes after trailing by six after 54 holes.
Stewart Cink, who played his college golf at Georgia Tech and has been a long time Duluth resident, continued his recent outstanding play at the age of 45, closing with a 62 to tie for second behind Watson. Cink tied for fourth in his previous start in Memphis.
Two former UGA teammates and Georgia natives — Macon’s Russell Henley and Savannah’s Brian Harman — also played well in Hartford, tying for sixth, just one shot out of the second place tie.
Watson has enjoyed one of the most consistently successful PGA Tour careers since his rookie season in 2006, scoring nine victories between 2010 and ’16 and qualifying for the Tour Championship at East Lake seven times in a nine-year stretch beginning in 2008.
But Watson’s uninterrupted run of elite level play ended last year, when he managed just a handful of top 10 finishes and did not make it past the second round of the Playoffs. Watson was beset by both physical issues and mental struggles, following a late 2016 letdown in which he was passed over for a spot on the Ryder Cup team.
Watson re-emerged early in 2018 with his his third career title in the Los Angeles Open at Riviera CC, followed a month later by a dominating performance in the WGC Match Play Championship, his second career WGC victory.
But after finishing fifth in ther Masters, Watson reverted to his 2017 level of play before again finding his old form in a familiar locale.
Watson scored his first PGA Tour victory in Hartford in 2010 and added a second win there in 2015. It did not look like a third title last Sunday was very likely, as he began the day six shots behind Paul Casey.
After beginning his final round with four straight pars, Watson hit his tee shot on the 225-yard par-3 fifth to five feet, and followed with another birdie on the par-5 sixth after a wayward second shot. A bogey at the par-3 eighth did not slow his momentum, as Watson scored birdies on six of his last 10 holes to overtake a faltering Casey.
Watson began his furious rally with a monster tee shot, as he almost drove the green on the 400-yard ninth for his third of eight birdies on the day. He holed a 50-footer from the fringe on 10, rolled in a 14-footer at 12 and reached the par-5 13th in two to continue his climb up the leader board. He drove into a greenside bunker at the short, par-4 15th and got up and down before closing out his exceptional round with a 366-yard drive at the 18th, followed by a wedge to 2 1/2 feet.
The birdie at 18 put Watson one ahead of Casey, with other players still having a chance to catch him. No one came close, and Watson came away with a surprising 3-stroke margin of victory after beginning the day six shots back.
With the victory, his 12th in 13 seasons on tour, Watson moved from 10th to third in the FedExCup standings, from 20th to 13th in the World Golf Rankings and from seventh to fifth in the Ryder Cup standings.
Atlanta golf fans will welcome Watson back to East Lake after last year’s absence, with Watson scoring top-10 finishes in the Tour Championshipt in each of his last four appearances.
While Watson suffered a drop in play for only one season, Cink has not played up to the standards he set in his first 13 years on tour since the 2009 season, when he collected a prized trophy for winning the British Open.
Although he only won six times in that 13-year span, Cink had 19 other finishes of either second or third, qualified for the Tour Championship eight times and came close on several other occasions.
But after his playoff victory over Tom Watson at Turnberry, Cink began to slide down the FedExCup standings, falling out of the top 100 in 2012. After a respectable recovery in 2013, Cink again finished outside the top 100 the next three years before moving back into the 70s last year.
After getting off to a decent start in the 2017-18 season, Cink went almost five months without a finish better than 30th and fell out of the top 125 before tying for fourth in Memphis. He could have finished higher, but settled for a final round 2-over 72.
Cink did a little better in the final round Sunday at Hartford, notching birdies on six of his first seven holes and finishing with 10 birdies on the day for an 8-under 62. Three of his first six birdies came from five feet or closer, along with a 10-footer. But he also holed a putt from 35 feet and chipped in from 65 feet.
Another 35-footer gave Cink his seventh birdie of the day, but bogeys on the back nine par 3s negated birdies on the lone par 5 on the side and the drivable par-4 15th. Cink closed out his 62 wiuth a 15-footer on the 18th hole and got some help from players ahead of him at the time to finish ina 4-way tie for second.
His last two tournaments have represented his best finishes since he won the British Open in 2009.
Cink moved up from 103 to 72 in the FedExCup standings and his World Ranking improved from 149 to 95. After failing to qualify for the PGA Championship since 2014, Cink is in position to qualify this year, especially if can come cloas to matching the quality of his recent play. He is also looking to make it back to East Lake for the first time since 2009.
Harman and Henley are both trying to return to East Lake after qualifying for the Tour Championship last year and each player helped himself with a strong finish in Hartford.
After qualifying for the Tour Championship for the first time last year, Harman is in line for a rerurn, moving up from 25 in the FedExCup standings to 17. His tie for sixth was his eighth of the season, tying Dustin Johnson for the lead in that category, but was his first in three months. He also remained 12th in the Ryder Cup standings, and even if he doesn’t crack the top eight and earn an automatic berth, he will definitely be in the conversation for a captain’s pick.
Henley has made it to East Lake twice in the past four seasons, but will have to go some to earn a third spot in the field. Henley moved up from 90 to 78 in the standings with his tie for sixth, and his best finish of the season followed back-to-back solid showings in the Memorial and U.S. Open, a sign he may be about to make a late-season run.
Earlier this year, Henley had consecutive finishes of eighth and 15th in Houston and the Masters, but suffered through an unproductive May before regaining his form in June.
Three golfers with Georgia ties who missed the cut at Hartford got good news Monday in the form of exemptions into the British Open.
St. Simons Island resident Patton Kizzire, former Georgia Tech golfer Chesson Hadley and Luke List, who grew up in north Georgia, were added to the British Open field thanks to their current rankings in the top 20 in the FedExCup standings.
Kiizzire, who is ninth in the standings after winning twice early in the season, will be joined at Carnoustie by Hadley and List, who narrowly qualified at 19 and 20 in the standings. They were the only three PGA Tour players to make it into the field based on their top-20 status in the FedExCup. List will be playing his first British Open and Kizzire and Hadley will be making their second starts.