I'm not sure anyone envisioned Kramer Hickok and Harris English providing the best sports drama of the day with seven straight pars in an eight-hole playoff at the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands, but that's exactly what unfolded Sunday.
English eventually emerged as the winner after sinking a birdie putt on the eighth playoff hole (matching the second-longest sudden-death playoff in PGA Tour history), but both golfers were improbable entrants into the playoff to begin with. Third-round leader Bubba Watson led midway through the back nine in Sunday's fourth round with English and Hickok drifting in and out of the lead and co-lead. Finally, Watson ejected by playing his last five in 6 over, and English and Hickok took the stage.
First, English hit a 28-footer on the 18th hole in regulation to get to 13 under. Hickok covered him up with a 6-foot par putt on No. 17 and a 9-foot birdie on No. 18. If he'd missed either, this column would have been written two hours earlier than it was written.
The playoff felt more like a chaotic U.S. Open than most of last week's U.S. Open did. For much of it the crowd on 18 (which was played six times!) sounded like Cameron Indoor Arena. The standard bearer for the pairing had to be replaced because of exhaustion and Hickok's buddy (and PGA Tour winner) Sam Burns was reading putts from his yardage book to Hickok's family out on the course.
After both players opened with seven straight pars to start the playoff, English finally took the marathon playoff on the 8th playoff hole with the first birdie of extra time. The scorecard doesn't tell the story, though, because 14 straight 4s on two different playoff holes sounds boring, and this was anything but that.
The eight-hole playoff – only the 1949 Motor City Open went longer in PGA Tour history – was not a ball-striking exhibition, but it did include eight (!!) putts made from 5 or more feet, including a 15-footer from Hickok on the sixth playoff hole and a 16-footer from English for the win.
The tide seemed to turn on every hole. When English was up against the side of a bunker on the second playoff hole after Hickok lipped out a 43-footer for birdie, it looked for certain that Hickok would win his first PGA Tour title. Then when Hickok blew his putt past the hole to 15 feet on that sixth playoff hole, English seemed just as much of a certainty. And yet, nobody could make anything but a 4 for the last 100 minutes of the tournament.
Finally, English did so, and thus ended one of the more bizarre, fun moments of the golf season. This is golf. It is not a normal sport. Often, the least expected canvases provide the most interesting paintings. That's what we got on Sunday between English and Hickok, somebody nobody could have picked out of a lineup before the day started but whose name was being chanted by the end of it. Fourteen straight pars does not sound like much -- and on a Thursday afternoon it would not be -- but somehow on this Sunday evening, it was enough to deliver some of the most wonderful golf of the entire season. Grade (for both): A+
Longest sudden-death playoffs in PGA Tour history
|11||1949 Motor City Open||Lloyd Mangrum and Cary Middlecoff were declared co-winners by mutual agreement due to darkness|
|8||2021 Travelers Championship||Harris English def. Kramer Hickok|
|8||2012 Mayakoba Golf Classic||John Huh def. Robert Allenby|
|8||1983 Phoenix Open||Bob Gilder def. Rex Caldwell, Johnny Miller and Mark O'Meara|
|8||1981 Quad Cities Open||Dave Barr def. Woody Blackburn, Frank Conner, Dan Halldorson and Victor Regalado|
|8||1978 Greater Milwaukee Open||Lee Elder def. Lee Trevino|
|8||1965 Azalea Open Invitational||Dick Hart def. Phil Rodgers|
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2021 Travelers Championship.
Brooks Koepka (T5): Koepka actually finished third in this field on the week from tee to green but putted horribly (the worst of anyone in the top 10 on the leaderboard). He said after his round Sunday that he's going to take 10 days off from golf following a busy stretch and gave a really fascinating answer to the ubiquitous question – at least with him –
"The focus and discipline is there in a major where it's not here," said Koepka. "I kind of go for everything. I'm not trying to finish second. It's just I think the majors are easier to win if you're disciplined. Out here I think there are a lot more guys that have the opportunity to win just the way it sets up. Instead of having [the pin] like three [yards] off the side, you've got five [yards]. So you got a little more room for error, and I think that's why." Grade: A-
Bubba Watson (T19): Bubba led for most of the day before that late bogey-bogey-bogey-double bogey-bogey meltdown. It was tough to watch. Everything was blocked so far left, and each approach shot was seemingly worse than the one before it. He played so well all week and has been such a monster on this course throughout his career, that the finish seemed completely out of place (not to mention unexpected). It was a missed opportunity to tie Billy Casper with four Travelers Championship wins, but still mostly was a solid week for him. Grade: B
Dustin Johnson (T25): A strange week for D.J., who bookended a 68-65 middle of his tournament with a 70-71. The big problem for him has been with his irons. He's lost strokes in 14 of his last 27 measured rounds on approach shots, including two of four at TPC River Highlands. He was actually nearly last in the field on Sunday alone, and this after a fall in which he barely had any negative rounds on approach shots at all. To me it is pretty clearly the thing that needs fixing in his game right now. Grade: B-