The Travelers: Golf's go to event

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M. James Ward outlines the rise of Connecticut's PGA Tour event and how a strict attention to details has proven to be a bonanza for all involved.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

CROMWELL, CT. Sometimes a near death experience can be a catalyst in providing a springboard in laying the foundation for a much-needed rebirth. In 2006, the sponsorship of Buick for the PGA Tour event in Hartford came to an end.

Organizers scrambled to secure a title sponsor and then hoped to have the event scheduled in a time frame conducive to the new sponsor, competing players and golf fans in the area.

A tall order indeed. Akin to scaling a mountain but now in 2024 the Travelers Championship features one of the best fields in pro golf and has shown what resiliency, paying attention to the smallest of details and laser-like focus can achieve.

Travelers came on board as title sponsor in 2007 and the uptick in community interest began to germinate to the point that this year's event features a $20 million purse, with $3.6 million to the winner. How much growth? In 2022 – the winner's share was just under $1.5 million.

Travelers Championship logo

After a pressure-packed engagement at the US Open, this week's Travelers golf tournament event, held in Cromwell just south of Hartford, brings to the forefront a community centric event and now one of the most compelling tournaments played on the PGA Tour.

Consider that Travelers is the lone PGA Tour event in the Northeast this year. That's a significant achievement when larger communities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston sit on the sidelines this year and likely for the foreseeable future.

The annual event, which has always been played in the Nutmeg State, started in 1952 as the Insurance City Open. The tagline was most appropriate given key insurance companies within the United States had corporate headquarters in Connecticut's State capital.

Different sponsors and host sites came and went but the overall status and significance of the event blossomed when the present TPC at River Highlands course came into being in 1991 and when Travelers assumed the role as title sponsor.

Aiding the event was being named a "signature event" by the PGA Tour. That status first happened in 2023 and will remain in place for the duration of Travelers' current contract through 2030. The signature tag ensures a limited star-studded field of approximately 70+ players with no 36-hole cut.

In its earliest days, stretching back to just after World War I, professional golf featured a smattering of low-level events scattered around the country. Clearly, nowhere near the size and structure one sees with today's PGA Tour. During its embryonic phase the "tour" was a hodge-podge of different cities offering meager purses as host communities were looking to promote themselves as worthy alternatives for potential new residents and businesses.

The top players could not sustain themselves via the miniscule purses offered and generally needed to be on the payroll with a private club or resort to sustain themselves. Various exhibitions of all types were often held to coincide with such tournaments.

Midsize cities such as Hartford, Greensboro, Fort Worth, to name just three. were an annual trek. The bond between such communities and pro golf became a fascinating combination featuring larger host cities and those far smaller and often with no pro sports connection save for the golf event staged.

The organizational foundation of the PGA Tour was not formalized until 1968 when a split with the PGA of America took place and a new entity called the Tournament Players Division was created. That name was changed in 1975 to the PGA Tour.

Securing a key time frame was central to the success of the Travelers. In years past the event had been played in August and simply failed to grab the attention of players and fans.

The week following the US Open was available but for many other tournament organizers and sponsors that time frame seemed a heavy lift given the intensity from competing for the championship of American golf the week prior. Travelers took that time frame and essentially turned a lemon into lemonade.

Matters were helped considerably by a number of engaging competitions that featured noteworthy milestones and down-to-the-wire finishes.

In 2016, Jim Furyk recorded the lowest 18-hole score in PGA Tour history - a 58.

In 2017 the tournament featured a playoff between Jordan Spieth and Daniel Berger. Spieth's amazing bunker shot at the 18th had fans and television audiences spellbound.

Recent wins have featured champions such as Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and last year's winner - Keegan Bradley - a home-grown New Englander.

Behind the scenes, tournament officials were quick to get feedback from players and apply the myriads of critical details showing a resolve to improve on all fronts. For this year's event a charter plane was dispatched to pick up players, their families and caddies from Pinehurst.

In order to bolster family concerns - an improved day care service is provided along with an updated toy area for those with younger children.

In years past, the practice facility was simply outdated and needed a complete overhaul. The one used today is cited by players as being among the finest they use.

The broader impact of the Travelers extends outward in contributions to numerous non-profit organizations within the immediate region. In 2023, a total of $3 million was provided with 100% of the net proceeds going to charities.

On the frontlines have been two people – Travelers Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Bessette and Nathan Grube, Tournament Director.

Nathan Grube
Nathan Grube

Bessette has served in his role since 2004 and Grube since 2005. Combined they have formed a formidable twosome – elevating the event into a rising star in the PGA Tour portfolio.

Like any successful Broadway production – few people realize the key individuals who operate behind the curtain. The focus, as it should be, is on the players competing.

While much has been accomplished clear hurdles are on the immediate horizon. The PGA Tour is in direct negotiation with Saudi Arabia's Pubic Investment Fund (PIF) which is the financial arm for the rival LIV Tour.

The outcome could well determine which events stay or face possible extinction. The pro golf scene is ever evolving but if the past is any guide, the Travelers has shown clear proof that anyone betting against an insurance company had best think twice about doing so.

Andy Bessette
Andy Bessette

Bessette offered the following on that specific subject.

“I’m not sure how everything is going to play out, but I know that the people involved in the process are excellent sports business leaders. I have complete confidence in the representatives from the SSG group, and I think that whatever happens, the right thing will come out of it. Our focus is on improving the Travelers Championship and providing an amazing experience for everyone. Travelers has a title sponsorship agreement with the PGA TOUR through 2030, and our plan is to have the Travelers Championship as a Signature Event at least that long.”

Clearly, the pro golf scene is ever evolving but if past is any guide, the Travelers has shown successful resiliency. Anyone betting against an insurance company with a proven track record of success had best think twice about doing so.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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