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Simpson, Watson, Bradley have major fun at Travelers

Fans relish pairing of champs

Jim rogash/Getty Images

Webb Simpson (left) and Bubba Watson, the last two major winners, opened with 66s and are two off the Travelers lead.

CROMWELL, Conn. - Starting with select junior tournaments, continuing on through his days in high school and college, and now over the past four seasons as a professional, Webb Simpson has been announced on the first tee hundreds of times, if not thousands.

Thursday, though, was different. And if anyone hanging around No. 1 at TPC River Highlands just before 1 p.m. was unaware of what all the commotion was about, the full-throated starter made it perfectly clear.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the 12:55 starting time. Please welcome, from Charlotte, the current United States Open champion . . . Webb Simpson!’’

Having the US Open winner in the field was certainly a coup for the Travelers Championship, especially because Simpson had won just four days ago so far away, at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. But what made the appearance extra special was pairing Simpson in the first two rounds with Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley.

That brought together the last three major champions, since Watson won the Masters in April and Bradley captured the PGA Championship last August.

Three young Americans - Watson is 33, Bradley and Simpson 26 - holding three of the most coveted trophies in golf. The significance of the grouping wasn’t lost on many spectators, who trudged through sauna-like heat for all 18 holes, seeking shade and cold, plus liquid comfort - which came in many forms and no doubt prompted some of the louder catcalls.

It was hard to ignore the well wishes - “USA is proud of you guys . . . three majors, yeah!’’ was heard twice near the second tee - but their gratitude for Simpson & Co. simply showing up was quickly replaced by reactions to good shots and birdies, even an eagle.

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Watson and Simpson shot 4-under-par 66 - two shots off the lead held by David Mathis - while Bradley had 68.

“I knew it was going to be a tough round to come out and really focus and put last week behind me,’’ said Simpson, “but we got off to a good start as a group - two of us birdied 1 - and it was just fun playing with those guys.

“We kind of fed off each other and just played a good, solid round.’’

Another popular theme from the gallery: “Thanks for coming to Hartford!’’

Simpson made a daylong detour to North Carolina after winning the US Open, taking the red-eye home Sunday night and arriving here Tuesday afternoon.

Playing in a tournament right after the biggest win of one’s life might not be everyone’s decision, but Simpson never thought twice. The Travelers offered him a sponsor’s exemption in 2008, not long after he turned pro. It’s a gesture that has never been forgotten.

“I love the people here,’’ he said. “I love coming to this town, and I think it’s actually going to be good for me to get back in the ropes and play this week.

“In a way, I had to put last week behind me and try to play as well as I could.’’

Simpson might want to put parts of last week behind him since he’s playing in another tournament, but he has spent the past few days listening. Watson and Bradley know exactly what comes with making the overnight jump from PGA Tour winner to major champion - the opportunities, attention, and demands it brings.

Simpson even sent Watson - they were match teammates at last year’s Presidents Cup - a text message after his Olympic win, wondering what he’d be getting himself into.

“I just told him, you’re going to have more fans,’’ said Watson. “You’re going to have more people wanting you to sign, and your agent’s going to have more things for you to do.

“You’re just going to have to be able to say no. You’re the boss. You’ve just got to be able to say no and do what’s right for you and your family, not what’s right for other people.’’

Easier said than done, according to Simpson.

“I’m a people pleaser, so I’m going to have to get used to saying no, which is tough for my personality,’’ he said. “Not try to ignore it, but just embrace it.’’

He picked up Thursday right where he left off Sunday. Simpson made a birdie at No. 1, added another at the par-5 sixth, had back-to-back birdies on Nos. 12-13, and two-putted the 15th for a fifth birdie after he drove the par 4. His only bogey came at the 16th.

Simpson might have been the honored guest on Thursday, but Watson stole the show, at least for a few minutes. After a front-nine 32, Watson holed his second shot on the par-4 10th from the left rough for an eagle, knocking in a sand wedge from 135 yards.

That produced the second-loudest ovation of the day, after Simpson’s introduction.

He might get used to being referred to as the US Open champion someday. But not the first day.

“I never really dreamed that I would hear that, but when I heard it, I kind of smiled inside,’’ Simpson said. “That was pretty cool on the first tee.’’

Bradley took it a step further.

“The scene on the first tee was one of the highlights of my career,’’ said Bradley. “The atmosphere was unbelievable. To be out there with Webb and Bubba, it’s just a really cool experience for all three of us.’’

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.

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