Ben Coley’s Travelers Championship preview and best bets

Ben Coley expects two of the biggest names in golf to go well at the Travelers Championship, where Davis Riley is also fancied to continue his quest to join them.

Golf betting tips: Travelers Championship

5pts Jordan Spieth or Patrick Cantlay to win at 9/1 (General)

1.5pts e.w. Davis Riley at 40/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1.5pts e.w. Marc Leishman at 50/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Joel Dahmen at 80/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Emiliano Grillo at 150/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

Sky Bet odds | Paddy Power | Betfair Sportsbook

The Travelers Championship has always had the knack when it comes to getting world-class players to come here following the US Open, so it’s no surprise to see Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Justin Thomas head the betting for what’s always a fun tournament at TPC River Highlands.

For McIlroy, this will be his fourth appearance in a row but perhaps more significantly, the last we see of him before St Andrews. He’s decided that the best way to prepare for his long-awaited return to the Old Course is by heading home to Northern Ireland and taking in some links golf away from the spotlight, a formula which worked well for Padraig Harrington and might do for him, too.

That fact should help ensure McIlroy remains focused on this tournament but it’s no doubt been a draining stretch, physically and mentally. Winning in Canada was really important to him and so was contending in majors either side, but he’ll feel some regret no doubt having been somewhat in the mix for all three this year. Throw in the statesman role he so relishes and you have to worry that the edge might just be taken off.

I’d say the same of Scheffler, who will feel he let the US Open slip through his fingers. Yes, he had to battle a difficult set of tee-times, but come the weekend and the level playing field of Brookline, he squandered two big opportunities to put his stamp on things. Unlike at the Charles Schwab Challenge, where he had a bit of a point to prove having been luckless at Southern Hills, maybe this time he’ll suffer a hangover of his own making.

That leaves Thomas as the best of the three and his approach play remained excellent in the US Open, an event in which he’s not really been a factor since a strange renewal in 2017. Once third here thanks to a closing 62, he can score at River Highlands but it must be said he’s played here on six other occasions without threatening whatsoever, which is enough of a concern at the odds.

This is a roundabout way of saying the favourites look vulnerable to me and I can’t resist taking a twin approach by splitting win-only stakes between two players who are made for this course, PATRICK CANTLAY and JORDAN SPIETH.

Cantlay famously shot a second-round 60 here as an amateur and since returning from a lengthy absence to establish himself as a world-class player, he’s finished 15th, 15th, 11th and 13th at the course. Three times he’s shot 65 at what’s a short par 70, 14 of his 16 rounds have been under-par, and he’s looked every inch a Travelers champion in the making.

On the first of these four occasions he hit the ball well enough to compete with winner Bubba Watson only to suffer the sort of quiet putting week which was common back then. The same happened in 2019, though he’d have been no match anyway for Chez Reavie, but in two subsequent visits his putting here has reflected the fact that it’s become a real strength of his game.

At a course which measures under 6,900 yards and where Jim Furyk shot the first and only 58 in PGA Tour history, it’s hard to overcome a cool putter at River Highlands and Cantlay shouldn’t have to, having ranked 10th and 12th over his last two starts. That’s a potential edge on Thomas and though he’ll need to improve his approach work, he’s been very good in that department here, as he was at the Heritage.

“I do like the golf course,” he confirmed last year. “I feel like it suits my game really well and rewards driving the ball in the fairway and hitting smart iron shots.

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“I feel like my putting has been getting better and I’ve been holing a few more putts. I think when you can get hot with the putter as well as I hit it most of the time, that’s when I have chances to win.

“Just got to stay patient and wait for them to go in. When they do, look out.”

Cantlay was right to issue this warning as he went on to win the BMW Championship in Baltimore and capture the FedEx Cup. This is a shorter test but with some similarities and his form on other Pete Dye layouts includes a play-off defeat at The Heritage, and the Zurich Classic pairs win which followed.

After his best major performance since the spring of 2019, improving each day to take 14th place last week, Cantlay looks primed to extend a run of non-major form which reads 2-1-3 since the Masters.

Spieth was of course the player who denied him at the Heritage and there’s slight trepidation in hoping for a repeat of what happened in the aftermath of a major just two months ago.

However, I thought he was very much overpriced here, not far shorter than he was to win a US Open last week. Spieth’s record since winning a very different one at Chambers Bay amounts to very little, and he wasn’t really expected to do much better than the mid-pack finish he did achieve at The Country Club.

Pleasingly, his approach play took a notable step forward and he’d have threatened the places with the kind of putting week he’d produced at the Memorial before that, so with his work around the green as sharp as ever and having driven the ball well for months, he still looks very close to my eye.

The fact he won here in 2017 despite hitting a drive out of bounds means we’ve got the course form angle well and truly covered, and though he’s been poor in the event since since, he’d gone MC-MC coming in as defending champion, had just dropped out of the world’s top 30 as his slide began in 2019, and was outside the top 50 when returning in 2020.

Now back to 11th and determined no doubt to climb higher, he looks far better prepared for the type of technical test he so clearly enjoys. Spieth’s Dye form includes wins here and at Harbour Town, second at Whistling Straits, fourth at Sawgrass, fourth at TPC Louisiana and ninth at Crooked Stick, and another success is perfectly possible.

I would also note that he was a popular 12-14/1 shot at Colonial a couple of starts ago, just a point bigger than Thomas in the market. This time he’s twice the price and given that I felt he was a bet for the Charles Schwab, where he didn’t putt particularly well, I can’t leave him out at a course which ought to be no less suitable.

Another golden chance for Riley

DAVIS RILEY could well have won that tournament for us at a similar price to that which is available here, and he can again defy a lack of experience to continue his relentless rise.

Riley had gone favourite in Texas when a loose drive at just the wrong time probably cost him the championship, which was frustrating for us and no doubt maddening for him. But he regathered himself, took fourth place, and has since continued a months-long run of excellent form with 13th at the Memorial and 31st in the US Open.

Right now there are few if any better iron players in the sport, Riley having ranked sixth, third, 10th and eighth across his last four tournaments, and his putting has been very good save for a quiet week in the US PGA. If there has been a weakness lately it’s been driver, but as recently as March he was the best in the field in that department and we’re clearly talking about someone on his way to the very top.

That was when Riley went close at the Valspar, which correlates really well with this event, and he could emulate Bubba Watson, Freddie Jacobson and MARC LEISHMAN by winning his first PGA Tour title in Cromwell.

That brings us nicely to Leishman, who arrives on the back of his best ever US Open performance. It’s the one major which has never really appealed to the Aussie, so to finish strongly for 14th place, adding to good efforts in the Masters and the US PGA, sets him up nicely for a big summer.

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Leishman was of course runner-up at St Andrews in the 2015 Open Championship and everything he’s done this year has been with that target in the back of his mind. He just needed something to get him going, and a really solid week at Brookline could well be it.

“I feel like I’ve turned a corner and I’m pretty excited for a big stretch of golf, with the Travelers and then the Scottish and British Opens,” he told Australian Golf Digest. “I’ve got a little bit of a bee in my bonnet about St Andrews after losing in a playoff there in 2015, so I’d love to have some great results the next few weeks and go to St Andrews really sharp.”

At a time when some players might feel they need to ease off, Leishman clearly wants to press down hard on the accelerator and where better than the scene of his breakthrough win in 2012, when he came from behind with a closing 62 to steal the title somewhat, but was nevertheless the best player in the field from tee-to-green.

All told he’s made 10 of 11 cuts here and as a horses-for-courses player whose strengths are approach play and putting, River Highlands is the perfect place to set himself up for that redemption bid in Scotland next month. On the back of his best strokes-gained approach figure so far in 2022, he rates a cracking bet at 50s.

It’s often said that pre- and post-major tournaments are good opportunities for those backing players at big prices, and that’s certainly been true here at times. Ken Duke would be the prime example but we’d have an equally strong one had Kramer Hickok beaten Harris English in that marathon play-off 12 months ago, while the unheralded Zach Sucher was second at a monster price in 2019.

Who will build on US Open form?

Equally apparent is that form from the US Open sometimes carries over really well, particularly if it involves someone who either felt they’d left a lot of shots out there, or was delighted with their week in general. Chez Reavie and then English won this having been third a week earlier to tick the latter box, while Spieth left Erin Hills feeling he was very close in 2017, and went on to prove it.

Others, like Bubba Watson, are just glad to get the US Open out of the way and it’s worth scanning through the leaderboard for those who might in some way use last week as a springboard. Nick Hardy, who made his pro debut here in 2018, would be on that list along with Matthew NeSmith, Patrick Rodgers, Hayden Buckley and JOEL DAHMEN, and the fact these are all inside the top 50 in greens in regulation for the year is another small positive.

Any mention of such an antiquated statistical category seems a bit old hat nowadays but I can’t help it, as this was the tournament in which I tipped my first winner for the Life way back in 2010, and largely thanks to the fact Bubba ranked so highly in greens hit. Since then such a simple approach might’ve found at least three more champions, including Russell Knox (4th for the year coming in), Spieth (3rd) and Bubba (11th), with several others inside the top quarter of players on the circuit.

Hardy and Rodgers in particular are of some interest and have to be in mind for the upcoming John Deere Classic, but it’s Dahmen who I like most at the odds despite some concerns as to whether he can make his share of putts – don’t forget, Kevin Streelman and Reavie have won here along with Watson, so it’s not as simple as good putters equal Travelers champions.

Dahmen is very much in the mould of winners like Streelman, Reavie and Knox in that he’s very accurate off the tee and hits a load of greens, while his strokes-gained approach numbers last week were exceptional. Indeed, a player who has said he’s not good enough to win majors and who pondered not bothering with US Open qualifying was fifth-best in the field from tee-to-green, and finished 10th while putting poorly.

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I just wonder then, might it be a performance which forces Dahmen into really believing in himself, and focusing on what he can achieve in this game over the next 10 years? From what he said afterwards, it could be.

Asked what he’d learned, Dahmen said: “I can hit it with the best of them. I learned that, especially on a course like this where you have to hit it in the fairway and it’s not overly long. I think I was one of the best ball-strikers over the four days.

“I was maybe going through the motions a little bit, and now I’m looking forward to teeing up next week. My game is right there the way I’m hitting it. If I can just clean up a couple of things with the putter, and yeah, I’m ready to play now. This is fun.”

He’s made three cuts in four here and missed the other on the number so we do have some course form, and 20th place in 2020 is worth upgrading – it was the post-shutdown renewal which featured everyone, and was won by Dustin Johnson at odds of 30/1, just to underline the strength of field.

Dahmen finished with a round of 65 and now returns for the first time since as a PGA Tour winner, who has just secured the best major finish of his career. The fact he’s been fifth at Riviera helps provide some correlating form through lesser-lights like Streelman and Jacobson, and I think he’s overpriced.

Denny McCarthy is similarly appealing but he’s been very popular already and I couldn’t advise at anything below 66/1. A few firms still hold that price but I suspect it’d go very quickly if his name appeared at the top of this preview and have to leave out the PGA Tour’s best putter, who has some sneaky form here including when Covid forced his withdrawal two years ago.

Grillo in the groove

Buckley is the other US Open also-ran who somewhat appealed along with Adam Schenk, whose game has come back around, while the likes of Troy Merritt, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Brian Harman bring with them potential to light up the greens.

It’s hard to say the same of my final selection, but EMILIANO GRILLO has been a huge eye-catcher recently and I can’t resist taking this opportunity to back him on a suitable course.

The underachieving Argentine led in strokes-gained off-the-tee at the Memorial and carried that through to Canada, this time dialling in his approaches to rank 15th. In a high-class field he gained two strokes per round with his ball-striking, and it looks like he’s emerging from a rough patch which coincided with becoming a parent.

Last spring, his ball-striking clicked when second in the Heritage and he went on to play well throughout May, a sequence which features two starts which came after a major. He did something very similar in the summer of 2019, too, upping his game around the time of the US PGA, then finishing 19th and ninth on his next two starts and hitting it far better than the end result in the US Open.

Throughout his first four appearances here, Grillo hinted that River Highlands might prove suitable for him but it’s a second-round 65 in his sole missed cut to date, last summer, which proves it. With form at Colonial, Harbour Town, Riviera, Sawgrass and TPC Boston all stacking up well with this, at the price I’ll take on board the risk that the flat-stick lets him down.

Posted at 1400 BST on 21/06/22

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