PGATOUR.COM (CROMWELL, Conn.) – It was the perfect arena Sunday for two personalities who know the angst and lonely challenges of professional golf – Harris English and Kramer Hickok – to play head-to-head and prove that insatiable competitive fires burn deep within.
TPC River Highlands during the Travelers Championship, after all, is where the unexpected should be expected and the improbable is probable.
“It is,” said Marc Leishman, who erased a six-shot deficit over the final 18 holes and won here in 2012 and nearly repeated the act yesterday, “a really fun golf course. You can give yourself a lot of chances for birdies … you can make bogeys from nowhere … it’s just a hard place to lead.”
Not an easy place to leave, either, because for about two hours after the drama in regulation had concluded, a playoff between English and Hickok produced pure wildness for eight holes before the man whose dignity remained through the roof on those years when his game fell through the floor prevailed.
And guess what? “This isn’t by accident,” said caddie Eric Larson, choking back emotions after his man, English, won his second tournament in this season of rejuvenation.
“No one has worked harder to get his game back.”
What isn’t such a simple task is to summarize what in the name of Ted Kroll happened Sunday at TPC River Highlands before a limited crowd of 10,000 fans who made the noise of 100,000.
“You could feel the love these fans have for golf,” said English. “We loved it.”
What wasn’t to love, even if we might need a few days to digest it all? In a nutshell – actually, we need a few nutshells – here’s explaining how we got to the playoff:
Maintaining an annual tradition, someone came from behind on Sunday at the Travelers – English, who started two shots behind, shot 5-under 65, and was the leader in the clubhouse (technically, he was on the practice range) when Hickok, the 54-hole co-leader, strutted some major-league stuff at his 72nd hole. He stiffed an approach to 10 feet and was center cut to shoot 67 and tie.
Of course, that scenario was made possible because another Sunday tradition arrived almost on cue – a 54-hole leader hit pothole after pothole down the stretch. That it was three-time champion Bubba Watson would register as a surprise, except remember, this is the theater where the unexpected is expected.
So, Watson going from 13-under and in the lead to a share of 19th place on a bogey, bogey, bogey, double-bogey, bogey finish ranked as shocking – even for TPC River Highlands on Sunday of the Travelers.
You just couldn’t focus on that Watson collapse because English and Hickok embarked upon a playoff that was captivating.
That it gave Hickok a share of the spotlight for the first time in his young career (ranked 331st in the world, he was playing in just his 68th PGA TOUR tournament and finished top 10 for just the third time) was a thrill for his legion of supporters.
“Karma has come to him. He’s earned it.”
Oh, how karma came excruciatingly close to delivering Hickok over the goal-line. Even English took note. “Hats off to Kramer. What a hell of a competitor.”
But in a playoff that saw birdie putt after birdie putt go wide, the one by one of the PGA TOUR’s most grounded personalities at the eighth extra hole ended things. That it took English 26 holes and 96 strokes – 65 in regulation; 31 in the playoff – was a grind.
It just wasn’t something English wasn’t prepared for.
After all, when his promising career (two wins early) went off the rails for a few seasons (just four top 10s in 86 tournaments between 2016 and 2019, English never hit the panic button, never moaned, never groaned.
“He’s very chilled, very patient,” said Larson.
Reunited with swing coach Justin Parsons, English has motored forward in the world rankings with quiet, but brilliant efficiency. Ranked 183rd at the end of 2019, today he is sitting in the 12th spot.
“This is a validation win,” said the 31-year-old English, who won earlier this year at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, his first since 2014. “It took me seven years to win again … this is a validation of where my game is right now.”
On a series of clutch putts, first at the 72nd hole converted a slipper 27-footer that got him in at 13-under, then one several playoff holes when he made gut-check up-and-downs to stay alive, English showed an emotional side that even Larson hadn’t seen.
“I’ve never seen him that emotional,” said Larson. “It was so cool.”