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CROMWELL, Conn. – Every year, the pros on the PGA Tour torch TPC River Highlands with low scores. Par on the 6,802-yard layout is 70, but 63s fly around here like the redtail hawks over the nearby Connecticut River. On Friday, Charley Hoffman, Kevin Kisner and Justin Rose all carded a 63. Jason Day, an overnight co-leader, shot 62 on Friday.
Saturday, however, Mother Nature provided a measure of protection. After two days of stillness in the air and softness on the greens, a swirling wind gusted to 25 miles per hour around the course. Good scores could still be had, but players had to be more careful. They had to trust that the wind would be consistent for a few moments. Sometimes it complied, but on other occasions, it didn’t.
Kramer Hickok was breezing along on Saturday and after making birdies at 14 and 15, he had a two-shot lead at the Travelers Championship. Then bogeys at 17 and 18 dropped him back to 10-under par and with 18 more holes to play Sunday, he is now tied with three-time Travelers champion Bubba Watson on top of the leaderboard.
They have a one-shot advantage over Cameron Smith, Russell Henley and Jason Day, who are at 9-under par. Harris English, Brice Garnett, and K.H. Lee are two shots back at 8 under.
“The first two rounds were pretty negligent with the wind, then we played adding 20 to 25 yards on some shots,” Hickok said after signing for 68. “I had 170 yards into 16 and hit a 6-iron. Sometimes it’s hard to commit to that with water short and trouble long, and you’re hoping that the wind stays fresh. If it dies down, you’re 20 yards over the green. So, it just makes it tough. You just got to time it right and it hit the shot you’re trying to hit.”
Watson is a crowd favorite here, and he will get overwhelming support again Sunday. But he has to hit the shots, not the fans outside the ropes.
“When you’re playing in the afternoon you know the challenge ahead of you. Even though it seems like a birdieable course, when it gets windy like this, it’s very tough,” he said.
Henley, who has shot 67-66-68 this week, was a co-leader last week after three rounds at the U.S. Open. Paired with Rory McIlroy in the penultimate group, he shot 76 and finished T-13. Still, he learned something at Torrey Pines that could help him win his fourth PGA Tour event Sunday.
“I can handle more pressure than I thought I could,” he said Saturday evening. “In contention, I feel like I’ve been able to handle it and win a few times out here, but last week was more pressure than I’ve experienced. So that gives me confidence.”
In all, there are 14 players within three shots of Hickok, who has never won a PGA Tour event, and Watson, who made two birdies and three bogeys on the back nine Saturday. On a course that has yielded the PGA Tour’s only 58, that means the group of pros with a legitimate chance at winning is massive.
That group includes Dustin Johnson, who shot the low round of the day, a 65, and Bryson DeChambeau, who shot 68. Both of those major champions will start the final round three shots behind the leaders at 7 under.
“It’s going to take 7 or 8 under for sure tomorrow, which can happen out here,” DeChambeau said Saturday afternoon. “You’ve just got to execute shots and be confident and make some good putts.”
Before heading to his car, Day explained what it is going to take to win on Sunday.
“It’s crucial to have a good back-side tomorrow. If you can hole the 10- to 15-footers out there tomorrow, someone from three or four back could win this,” he said. “I feel like this tournament yields a lot of winners that way.”
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