TRAVELERS CHAMPIONSHIP: Phil and Spieth and Brooks and a guy named Bubba — this is one loaded field once again

TRAVELERS CHAMPIONSHIP: Phil and Spieth and Brooks and a guy named Bubba — this is one loaded field once again

CROMWELL — The 2019 Travelers Championship will be yet another showcase of some of the best talent on the PGA Tour as 16 of the Official World Golf Ranking’s top 30 players will tee off at TPC River Highlands starting Thursday morning.

With such a loaded field comes the opportunity for some more final-round drama. The past two years have seen a Jordan Spieth playoff win in 2017 and a come-from-behind victory by Bubba Watson in 2018 to claim his third Travelers title.

The defending champion is joined in the 2019 field by eight other former winners at River Highlands: Spieth (2017), Russell Knox (2016), Kevin Streelman (2014), Marc Leishman (2012), Freddie Jacobson (2011), Hunter Mahan (2007), J.J. Henry (2006) and two-time winner Phil Mickelson (2001-2002).

It is Mickelson’s first time back at TPC River Highlands since 2003, when he finished tied for 58th.

“It's hard for me to think that it's been 16 years since I've been here,” Mickelson said Wednesday. “It's been a fun career. A lot of fun things have happened. Playing well and doing well in this site is a big part of that. I'm very appreciative of that, and it's fun for me to get back while I still feel like I'm able to compete.”

Mickelson hasn’t been back to the Travelers in 16 years because of the fact that it follows the U.S. Open. But with a new schedule this year, he decided to make a return to Cromwell. Despite the long time between starts here, he called TPC River Highlands one of his favorite courses on the PGA Tour.

“It's always been one of the largest supported tournaments that we have,” Mickelson said. “What's really cool is the back nine offers great risk/reward, exciting finishes, lots of birdies and potential eagles, as well as bogeys and doubles. This is one of the more exciting back nines to finish a golf tournament.”

Mickelson’s comments on the size of the galleries were echoed by Watson, who in his career at TPC River Highlands has gotten to walk down the fairway to the 18th green amid some pretty large roars from the crowd.

“I mean, the setting on 18 on Sunday: No matter if you’re winning or losing, that setting, you can’t make that setting,” Watson said. “When you get a small town like this with all the people, all the fans around 18 like that, what a great setting for a golf tournament.”

Despite the rain on Tuesday, the course is still in top shape. Wednesday’s Pro-Am went off without a hitch.

“It’s stunning,” Keegan Bradley said. “I just cannot believe the condition the course is in. This tournament is just so, from top to bottom, just incredible. When we come and we get to play on a course and greens in this condition, it’s such a bonus.”

Bradley, the No. 40 ranked golfer in the world, is making his ninth start at the Travelers Championship.

“I love coming and playing here at Travelers,” Bradley said. “I’ve seen the tournament grow so much ... It’s become one of the premier events on the tour.”

Coming off the U.S. Open, Watson said that he is looking forward to a course that feels like there is “no rough at all.”

River Highlands certainly allows players to shoot low scores. Jim Furyk’s record 12-under 58 in the final round of the 2016 tournament is the gold standard, and last year saw some fantastic performances as well.

Stewart Cink birdied 10 holes on his final round, going 8-under and jumping from 22nd into a four-way tie for second.

Spieth, Lanto Griffin, Zach Johnson and Watson all had rounds of 7-under last summer and second-place finisher Paul Casey shot an 8-under 62 in the third round.

“The golf course, it’s enjoyable to play,” said Brooks Kopka, who ranks No. 1 in the world. “We like shooting a bunch under par. It’s fun for us. I know that’s why you see some of the best players in the world come back year after year.

“It’s one that I’d like to keep on my schedule for a long time. If you notice, most Tour players play the same events year after year. They find golf courses they like, find courses they don’t like, and they stay away from those and come back to the ones they like.”

The 2019 tournament will kick off Thursday with the first set of tee times taking place at 6:45 a.m.

Players to watch ■Brooks Koepka: The top-ranked golfer in the world comes into his fourth start at the Travelers Championship after finishing tied for 19th at 5-under in 2018.

Koepka was coming off of a U.S. Open victory last year and will be in a similar situation after finishing in second at Pebble Beach last week.

“It’s difficult, not just because it’s cross country but because emotionally, mentally the toll it takes being in contention,” Koepka said. “It’s a little different than it would be if it was another PGA Tour event or another event where you’re not in contention; not as draining.”

■Bubba Watson: The three-time Travelers champion will be looking to add to his trophy case at the place where he picked up his first win on Tour. Watson shot a pair of 7-under 63s last summer to propel himself ahead of Paul Casey for the victory.

“For me, it’s just a perfect blend of I-can-hit shots,” Watson said. “I like to cut the ball, so holes lend to a cut driver. For me, the sight lines, the way the rough is, the course distance. There are about four holes that … get in my head; tough off the tee.

“Other than that, it’s a pretty generous golf course for me the way I play golf, the way I try to attack the golf course. The rough doesn’t scare me, especially after playing the U.S. Open.”

■Paul Casey: Last year’s runner-up lost a four-stroke lead on Sunday. Casey has finished in the top 5 in three of his four starts at River Highlands.

“I’m playing good stuff,” Casey said Tuesday. “You know, last week was great to be at Pebble, but I feel like my golf is right where it needs to be. We got not only this, but the push to the end of the FedExCup, so things are getting very, very serious now.”

■Patrick Cantlay: The No. 8 golfer in the world, Cantlay finished third in the PGA Championship and won the Memorial Tournament in early June.

Last year was one of his best showings at River Highlands. He shot 10-under to finish tied for 15th.

■Viktor Hovland: The 2018 U.S. Amateur Champion is making his professional debut at the Travelers Championship this week.

Last week, Hovland set the U.S. Open record for the lowest 72-hole score by an amateur, shooting a 280 and breaking Jack Nicklaus’s record of 282 in 1960.

Groups to watch ■Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay (7:35 a.m. from No. 10): This group includes three top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking who will all be looking to move up a position on each other.■Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau (7:45 a.m. from No. 10): You’ve got the defending champion in Watson and the top player in the world in Koepka. Finau, ranked No. 16 and making a return to Travelers after missing last year, rounds out another impressive trio.■Paul Casey, Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Day (12:50 p.m. from No. 1): This group features three top 20 players who were all very successful in last year’s tournament. No. 15 Casey was 14-under, No. 10 DeChambeau was 12-under and No. 18 Day was at -11.■Phil Mickelson, Marc Leishman, Jordan Spieth (1 p.m. from No. 1): While not as highly ranked, this group features a pair of previous winners in No. 29 Spieth and No. 26 Mickelson, while No. 23 Leishman will be looking to bounce back after not making the cut in last year’s tournament.