CROMWELL, Conn. – That massive traffic jam in this corner of the Northeast corridor has nothing to do with folks traveling to or from New York on I-84. It has everything to do with the way in which the second round of the Travelers Championship concluded Saturday morning at TPC River Highlands – with a whopping 88 players making the cut.
It’s the second largest in tournament history and second largest on the PGA Tour this year (at the Shell Houston Open, 90 made the halfway cut) and pushed the start of Round 3 back to 12:30.
Now there would be no shortage of situations you could point to for ways in which only 70 players at 1 under would have made the cut – had Charlie Beljan birdied his 18th hole or had John Peterson not bogeyed his 17th hole – but the incident with Brian Gay had a significant impact on how many played in Round 3.
It left Gay teetering on the cut line, but as much as that, it was a true testament to the integrity of the Tour rules staff. After a discussion in the scorer’s trailer that took more than an hour and involved Gay, his caddie Kip Henley and rules officials Stephen Cox and Mark Russell, the decision went against the veteran player. Gay was assessed a one-stroke penalty for stepping on his ball, and that opened the door for 19 players at even par to make the cut.
Those who favor conspiracy theories were crushed. Because had Russell, who ultimately ruled against Gay, supported the player and not assessed the penalty, Gay would have made a 7 at the 17th, shot 71, and finished 1 under with 69 others, and 18 players at level par would have been sent home. Conspiracists would have been free to suggest Russell’s decision was made to make things easier, because 70 players makes for a cleaner round than 88.
But in the end, Russell decided that since Gay couldn’t be 100 percent sure he did not move the ball in a hazard area to the left of the 17th green, then the book tells you to rule that for coming in contact with your ball, tack one on.
“It’s not personal. It’s the rules of the game,” said Russell, the Tour’s vice president of rules and competition. “He said he stepped on his ball. Did it move? You tell me.”
Gay simply shook his head.
“I said the ball could not have moved because it was solidly in the soil. I had to dig it out with my hands,” Gay said. “I don’t think there was any way I moved the golf ball. But when can you ever be 100 percent sure?”
Now Gay first and foremost was taking ownership of the fact that his bad play had opened the door for this madness. Having driven into a fairway bunker at the 17th, his eighth hole, Gay’s second shot was poor and wound up in tall, thick, wet grass inside a hazard line. While looking for the ball, Gay told Cox that he stepped on the ball but didn’t think he moved it.
That indecision led Cox to assess a one-stroke penalty and here, Gay concedes he erred. He let it get to him.
“I was totally, completely ruffled,” Gay said. Then pointing to Henley, his longtime caddie, he added: “And he was even more ruffled than I was.”
Knowing it was now his fourth shot, Gay hacked at it and barely moved it. His fifth shot was played to the front of the green, and his sixth pitched to 3 feet. Still upset, Gay missed that putt and tapped in for a quadruple bogey. He did not sign his card, however, until his lengthy discussion with Russell, during which time the next six threesomes came in and signed their cards.
Gay said several times during the face-to-face meeting that he thought Russell was going to rule in his favor, especially when Cox twice was summoned back to the trailer. But Russell held his ground, and while Gay was adamant on his side, this is not baseball or football, a team sport where hats are tossed, neck veins pop and ejections are handed out.
“It’s a bit of a helpless feeling,” Gay said. “But it doesn’t do me any good to get mad or pissed off or yell at people or anything like that. (The officials) are trying to make the best judgment they can, and I think it was a lot to do with going forward.”
Talking softly, which is his nature, Gay still wasn’t 100 percent sure that level par was going to make the cut. It all depended on Beljan. A birdie by the PGA Tour rookie would mean 70 players would make the cut at 1 under. But when Gay turned to his left and saw that Beljan had missed and finished at even par with 87 others, the three-time Tour winner knew he had a third-round tee time.
He should have felt relieved. Yet he still felt a bit disheveled.
“I kept my cool,” he said. “I just wanted to tell 100 percent the truth, of what I felt happened. I don’t know. I’ve never had that rule before, never had that happen. It seems crazy to go against the player when all the evidence is on the player’s side, I think.”
Gay then shrugged his shoulders and conferred with Henley about meeting in an hour or so to prepare for their third-round tee time. There was a massive traffic jam, and they were part of it.