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Mike Anthony: Dustin Johnson’s victory on an empty course stands among the proudest Travelers Championship moments

This year’s Travelers Championship will be remembered simply as the time Dustin Johnson won without spectators on hand in the midst of a pandemic. That’s OK because it becomes easy over time to sum up a number of these wonderful, and wonderfully complicated, events with a single sentence.

Ted Kroll won the inaugural tournament in 1952. Paul Azinger chipped in to win in 1989. Phil Mickelson won for the second year in a row in 2002. Bubba Watson won the first of his three in 2010. Jordan Spieth holed out from a bunker in 2017.

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Does much more need to be offered in describing any particular rendition of our state’s PGA Tour event as the years roll by?

D.J. won on an empty course in 2020.

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That’s how we’ll remember it, eventually and then always, probably forgetting over time many of the little details and ups and downs that led not only to Johnson’s 21st tour victory but to this tournament even being able to take place.

We should look back on this year as one of the proudest moments for a remarkable event, for the golf and for the $1.6 million it managed to generate for charities, for the fact that it came to fruition through unprecedented uncertainty. The pandemic certainly changed the complexion of the Travelers Championship, but it did not derail it and we are left to celebrate a revised version and all that went into it.

Dustin Johnson poses with the trophy after winning the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands.
Dustin Johnson poses with the trophy after winning the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

What a weird week, for the way it began. With one player testing positive for COVID-19 and withdrawing on Tuesday, and four more withdrawing on Wednesday out of precaution. With PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan arriving for a press conference to address fear of a virus’ spread and quell fear of the tournament’s cancellation. With seven coronavirus-related withdrawals, total.

What a weird week, for the way we reached it. With an announcement in April that the Travelers would remain on schedule as the tour’s third leg in a return to play. With strict safety protocols being developed, tweaked. With the best field in history. With fans told to stay away.

What a weird week, for how the defining stretch played out, even. With lightning and hail stones creeping toward TPC River Highlands Sunday afternoon. With Johnson standing in the pond at the heart of the triangle, shoes off, ankle deep in water, preparing for a shot on No. 15. With an hourlong weather delay. With Johnson’s lonely finish and a celebration to match that of, say, a random par converted on a Thursday.

Having flirted with throwing a seemingly insurmountable lead into the water with that red umbrella, Johnson still found ways to hold off Kevin Streelman and had two putts to win on 18. His first, from 19 feet, came to a rest just three inches from the cup.

Dustin Johnson is interviewed on the 18th green after winning the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands.
Dustin Johnson is interviewed on the 18th green after winning the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

If this weren’t the strangest time in a generation, he’d have put down a marker, let Brendon Todd finish and clear the way for a cinematic ending, and tapped in to the adoration of 60,000 fans. Though he’s generally reserved, Johnson probably would have raised his fists and hugged his caddie and maybe even chucked his ball into the crowd. It would have been beautifully chaotic, because it usually is at 18 on Sunday evening.

From the days of Sammy Davis Jr. and the Canon GHO cameras, from Wethersfield Country Club to TPC River Highlands and the Travelers umbrellas, our state’s PGA Tour event has endured all sorts of movement and challenges to become what it is today.

So much was different this year. Yet so much was the same.

We were robbed of some experiences but still given so much.

It gave us some scares, sure, with withdrawals that included Brooks Koepka. It gave us the strange sight of Jason Day and Matt Wallace playing alone. It gave us no in-person access to the best players in the world. It gave us reminders that the coronavirus is dictating everything.

It also gave us a wild two-day charge from Phil Mickelson, playing his first tournament since turning 50, the leader headed into the weekend. He was a fresh-face little boy, really, when he won in 2001 at age 31 and again in 2002, still searching for his first major championship back then.

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It gave us Will Gordon, a year out of college and fighting for spots in tour events, and his third-place finish (with Mackenzie Hughes).

It gave us the steady Streelman, the 2014 Travelers champion who made sure this year’s event was interesting until it was officially over.

And it gave us Johnson, utterly dominant when all facets of his game are working, adding a little chapter to what is turning into a Hall of Fame career. Johnson has won a tournament in each of the 13 years he’s been on tour.

This one took some perseverance, a word we can apply to the tournament as a whole. Johnson took the lead for the first time on the tournament’s 63rd hole, with a birdie Sunday at No. 9.

Todd, who carried a two-stroke lead into the day, imploded for a triple-bogey on 12, leaving him five back and giving Johnson a three-shot lead over Gordon, who was in the clubhouse, and Streelman, who was a hole ahead.

Johnson, however, yanked his drive on 13 left and out of bounds, a blown opportunity to essentially seal the tournament on that par 5. He answered with a birdie at 14 and came to the triangle with a two-shot lead.

This is where, more than any time all week, nothing really mattered but the golf being played on these signature holes surrounded by trees and grass, grounds normally covered by a sea of humanity. At the reachable the par-4 15th, Johnson hit a missile way left and the ball, somehow, plugged into the ground instead of reaching the water. He took off his shoes and socks and got wet to get out of that mess, chopping the ball onto the green and making par.

Dustin Johnson cleans his feet after having to go in the pond to hit a ball on the rough on the 15th hole during the final round of the Travelers Championship.
Dustin Johnson cleans his feet after having to go in the pond to hit a ball on the rough on the 15th hole during the final round of the Travelers Championship. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

After the delay, he bogeyed the par-3 16th, feeling pressure the he would soon defy with perfect tee shots, making par on 17 and 18, no big deal, tournament a wrap.

Nathan Grube and Andy Bessette like to say they begin working on next year’s tournament the day after the current year’s tournament.

Take Monday off, fellas. Enjoy what you and others were able to protect and preserve and offer with a weird and wildly successful week in 2020.

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