The opening round of the 2020 Travelers Championships was one to remember for 29-year-old Mackenzie Hughes. And it wasn’t the lack of fans at the Tournament Players Club at River Highlands in Cromwell.
Hughes had 10 birdies including on three of final four holes of the day to shoot a career-low 60 to capture the lead Thursday after the first round of the Travelers Championship. Hughes, who has one career PGA Tour victory, missed a shot for an birdie on the ninth hole that would have given him a 59.
Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, was in a three-way tie for second place with a seven-under-63 with Xander Schauffele and Victor Hovland. Phil Mickelson, who just turned 50 was among six players with a six-under 64.
The Travelers Championship is the third PGA Tour event to be held without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The PGA Tour season began again two weeks ago in Texas. Five players withdrew on Wednesday due to the virus. One player tested positive while two caddies tested positive — resulting in three players withdrawing because of their close proximity to the men during practice rounds earlier this week.
Fans can watch live online at PGA Tour.com or watch The Golf Channel coverage from 3-6 p.m. on Friday. The tournament coverage will shift to CBS on Saturday and Sunday.
“The absence of fans really hurts,” Hughes said. “That would be a lot of fun to play a round like that with the gallery kind of getting into it, but yeah, the new normal is here, and we’re all just going to try to adapt and do our best.
“It doesn’t really feel that strange. The PGA Tour has done a fantastic job making sure that we all feel safe, and we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel safe,” Hughes said.
When he finished strong, he had to find the energy within himself instead of drawing it from the crowd.
“Obviously I knew I was playing well and that people back home were watching, so I was definitely motivated enough to keep going,” Hughes said. “But yeah, it was weird making some nice putts and just a couple guys in the group saying “Nice putt.” If I shot 59 there would have been a few claps but that was about it. Yeah, it was a little different, but I think we’re kind of getting a bit more used to it now.”
Hughes topped his career-best of 61 set in 2017 at the RSM Classic. He had five consecutive birdies from the 14th through the 18th hole. Even if he had sunk his eagle attempt on nine for 59, it would have still been one shot shy of the PGA Tour record 58 from Jim Furyk in 2016.
“Where (does) this rank? It’s certainly probably top three, top five, somewhere in there,” Hughes said. “I’ve probably had more like meaningful rounds of say 65 or 66, but this was as far as going low and how I felt about the game, it’s definitely probably top five.”
McIlroy showed patience on the course and finished with six birdies. “I have to keep reminding myself it’s a 72-hole golf tournament and there’s plenty of chances throughout the week to make birdies,” he said. “Even after the first few holes where I had chances and I didn’t quite convert, you just have to keep telling yourself, so many more chances coming up.”
McIlroy was paired with Mickelson, who played his first competitive round since turning 50 and is one shot behind McIlroy.
“His longevity is incredible. It really is,” McIlroy said. “I think the big thing about Phil is his resilience. I mean, he’s won 44 times on tour, which is an incredible number. It looks from the outside he’s never feared failure, and I think that’s what’s made him such a fan favorite is he goes for things and he takes on things. And he has a deep appreciation for his place in the game and the game of golf itself.”
Mickelson was pleased. “I’ve played playing really some good golf and smart golf, and I played really well today,” he said. But he wasn’t thrilled with missing a shot at a birdie on the sixth hole.
“I don’t want to discount a lot of the other good shots that I hit, a lot of the other smart plays that I made and good putts that I made,” he said. “It was still a good round, it was just that one shot.”
Playing at age 50 is a bit of motivation, too, for the two-time winner in Cromwell, having won in 2001 and 2002.
“I love what I do. I love my job. I love trying to play and compete, and I really enjoy playing with guys like Rory and Bryson who are just tremendous talents and trying to compete with those guys. Rory has got one of the most beautiful golf swings this game has ever seen, and Bryson (DeChambeau) has got a unique style of playing that is fascinating, and he plays at the highest level. I enjoy kind of watching and learning, but I also enjoy trying to play my game and compete regardless of age.”
The golfers did hear some cheers from homeowners on the ninth hole. Several homes are close to the green. While fans are not allowed on the course, residents of the homes built on the course are allowed to be at home and step outside their homes to see the action.
But it was much quieter than usual.
“It’s sort of spring going into summer,” McIlroy said. “You can hear the birds chirping, and it’s a nice little stroll out there.”
This story was first published Thursday, June 25, 2020