5 Things: Mahan picks up where he left off

Hunter Mahan during his opening-round 62 at the 2013 Travelers Championship.

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CROMWELL, Conn. – Toto, we’re not at Merion anymore. For proof, all one had to do was survey the scoring area at the first round of the Travelers Championship where smiles, laugher, and goodwill dominated.

Players got to the first and 10th tees without 35-minute shuttle rides. They got to use the clubhouse. They found balls in the rough. They didn’t find makeshift tee boxes on putting greens. They didn’t have to play par-3s as two-shot holes.

“Easier. Everything was easier,” said Lee Westwood when asked what was different about the first round the Travelers when compared to last week’s U.S. Open. Though he didn’t necessarily mean the golf – Westwood reiterated that the logistics to last week’s USGA show at Merion made for a disconcerting experience – there’s no doubt that the PGA Tour hasn’t set up TPC River Highlands to protect Old Man Par.

Those smiles, laughter and goodwill that filtered throughout the scoring area, resulted from the fact that 156 players combined for 467 eagles and birdies. For comparison sakes, in Rounds 3 and 4 of the U.S. Open, the total of eagles and birdies reached just 349.

How comfortable was the PGA Tour brotherhood to be back at a golf course not set up so diabolically? Consider that when Hunter Mahan came in having made eight birdies and no bogeys, a crisp 62, he wasn’t doing handstands. In fact, his caddie, John Wood, casually said that it was likely that someone would go lower in the afternoon.

Give the man a prize, because Charley Hoffman’s 61 included eagles at both the par-4 10th and par-5 13th.

So with red numbers back, here are 5 Things to take from the opening round at TPC River Highlands:

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1. Some things never change: When last we were at TPC River Highlands, it was the final round of the 2012 Travelers and while Mahan didn’t win, he sure made it interesting. Going out early, he was 11 behind the leaders, but with a sizzling 61 he roared up the leaderboard. Though he finished T-11, Mahan got within four.

All he did for an encore in Round 1 – 12 months later – was go out early and post 62. He’s a whopping 17 under for his last two rounds and he’s made at least birdie on 13 of the 18 holes.

Clearly, Mahan has an affinity for this place. He made it his first win in 2007 and he also has two seconds and a fourth.

He also doesn’t appear to be carrying any baggage with him for having fallen short in a bid to win last week’s U.S. Open. “A tough finish or whatever, we’re all going to make bogeys,” he said. “I took all positives from last week.”

Similarly, Hoffman seemed to be carrying over a little bit of fondness for TPC River Highlands and isn’t spooked to think about the miscues that cost him a chance to win a year ago.

“Believe it or not, I was thinking about it going down 16, 17, 18,” Hoffman said. Errant tee shots on those holes enabled Marc Leishman to win, so forget the hole-out at 10 (from 169 yards) or the 18-footer for a second eagle three holes later, it was the par-par-birdie finish that pleased Hoffman.

“Obviously, a little more focused on those last two holes,” he said.

• • •

2. Teary-eyed: Four days later and Justin Rose concedes he’s still a bit numb. To be announced as the national champion, well, “I couldn’t help but smile,” he said.

That he birdied the first hole seemed surreal.

That he followed with bogeys at Nos. 3, 4, and 6 was a wake-up call, because while Rose knew he could have tossed in the towel and said to himself, “Heck, I’ve still got the U.S. Open,” he shook it off. “That was Plan B.”

Plan A was to play well and Rose did that. Forgetting that a 62 had been recorded in the morning and a 61 was being scripted in the afternoon, Rose gave himself a target: 2-under 68. “I felt like I set my own golf today.”

He got there with one to spare, thanks to a birdie at the par-4 seventh, then on four in a five-hole stretch coming in – Nos. 12, 13, 14, 15.

At 67, Rose is tied for 18th on a day when 65 players broke par and 81 shot par or better.

• • •

3. Where was this at Merion?: You have to figure that if the USGA were setting up this week, the 15th would be a par-3, even at 305 yards. Heck, it plays shorter than the behemoths last week, the par-3 third and par-3 ninth.

No one had more fun at 15 than Bubba Watson, as his drive came to rest 6 feet from the cup. He made the putt, though forget winning the Skins pool because Davis Love made a 21-footer for the other eagle. There were also 66 birdies and a field average of 3.641, though don’t tell Brian Stuard that it was easy. He made the only double-bogey.

• • •

4. Zach attack: Having struggled at Merion and caught some flak for offering a harsh assessment of the USGA set-up, Zach Johnson is also feeling comfortable here at TPC River Highlands. He birdied the par-4 17th to shoot 65, settling into a share of fourth, and matching his low score of the season.

Johnson, making his eighth start in this tournament, hardly flinched when he saw that Mahan shot 62 and was told that Hoffman had posted 61.

“That makes sense. It’s what we expected,” he said. “Minimum winds and pretty receptive greens overall. If you’re hitting it solid, you can make some birdies.”

Length is also not such a big factor here, because while Johnson was consistently lagging behind his playing competitors, Rose and Keegan Bradley (69), Johnson outscored them, 65-67-69.

Bradley actually grinded out his 1-under effort, thanks to a double-bogey at the par-3 fifth and a bogey at the 10th that had him 2-over. Birdies at 13, 15, and a 30-footer at 18 gave him reason to smile, however.

• • •

5. Short shots: Hoffman wasn’t the only one to eagle the 10th. John Huh holed a 5-iron from 188 in the afternoon. ... Bradley’s former high school teammate and current roommate, Jon Curran, had it to 2-under at the turn, but made four bogeys coming in to shoot 2-over 72. He’s in on a sponsor’s exemption. ... Making his pro debut, Chris Williams shot 71. ... Vijay Singh shot 70, the eighth straight tournament in which he has failed to break 70 in Round 1. ... Brad Faxon wrestled with his emotions. He’s a New Englander and this one is a home game, but he’s a Champions Tour guy now and this week’s tournament is in the Chicago area on a Seth Raynor classic. In the end, Faxon chose Travelers and with a 1-under 69, he had a satisfying start. ... In just his third round of the season, Paul Goydos shot 74.

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