News & Opinion

Travelers uses TLC to stand out on Tour

CROMWELL, Conn. – On Tuesday, Jim Furyk was hosting "Operation Shower," a group baby shower for 30 military moms-to-be whose spouses are deployed, at the Travelers Championship when he checked his phone. That's when tournament director Nathan Grube noticed the shattered screen. 

"I said, 'Jim, how many shards of glass do you get in your thumb?' " Grube said. "He said, 'You know, every once in a while, I have to pick one out.' "

Furyk had dropped the phone three weeks ago and had been too busy to do anything about it. Grube couldn't resist the opportunity to lend a hand. 

"It's what we do," he said.

Grube found a mobile repairman, and a few hours later Furyk picked up his phone at player relations. Consider that Exhibit A of the length one tournament will go to make life on the road feel a little more like home.

"We are relatively pampered out here," Furyk said in what could be the leader for understatement of the year. "Every tournament probably thinks they bend over backwards for us, but Travelers is always asking, What can we do better for the players?"

Hartford has been home to the PGA Tour since 1952, when Ted Kroll won the Insurance City Open. But the tournament was on life support when Buick pulled the plug after the 2006 edition, ending its three-year run as title sponsor. Hartford, which already had lost its NHL franchise, the Whalers, in 1997, could ill afford to lose its biggest hometown sporting event. That's when Travelers Insurance stepped in.

Jay Fishman, the Travelers executive who was one of the biggest Tour ambassadors until he died of complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis last year, christened the Travelers as Hartford’s hometown event with a hometown sponsor that supports hometown charities. 

It's a mindset that starts at the top with Andy Bessette, the 64-year-old executive vice president and chief administrative officer for The Travelers Cos. In 2006, he surveyed the landscape by interviewing players, fans, caddies, wives – "anyone that would talk to me," Bessette said – including broadcaster Mike Tirico. 

"How do I make this the best tournament on the PGA Tour?" Bessette asked Tirico.

Bessette went home with a list of suggestions, which included upgrading the practice facilities.

"I see Tirico twice a year, and every time I tell him, 'Mike, I've done everything on your list.' And he says, 'Andy, you did way beyond my list. You've done great,' " Bessette said.

The practice facilities, in case you were wondering, went from one of the worst on Tour to arguably the best. In 2008, a 23-acre state-of-the-art practice facility opened at TPC River Highlands, the course received a $3 million renovation in 2015, and next year after the last putt drops, the clubhouse will be razed and a 40,000-square-foot facility will take its place.

"The day you accept the status quo is the day you start going backwards," Bessette said.

That's the way Bessette trained as an Olympian in the hammer throw (he missed the 1980 Moscow Games because of the U.S. boycott), and it's the way he has lived his life. "It's the only way I know," he said.

Starting in year one, Travelers has splurged for a charter to fly players from the U.S. Open. Former champion J.J. Henry, a local favorite, says the tournament staff remembers his birthday and always sends a Christmas card, too. Three or four times a year, Travelers staff will slip a note about the tournament in player lockers with a thoughtful gift. Sometimes it's just a $25 Apple gift card. Henry bought his kids the games Roblox and Minecraft. 

"There is no stone unturned," Henry said.

All the little things – such as repairing an iPhone screen – have paid dividends in the tournament's strongest field in years. In 2006, the highest-ranked player in the field was Australian left-hander Nick O'Hern, who was No. 23 in the Official World Golf Ranking. This year, there are six players in the top 23, including Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and first-round leader Jordan Spieth, all of whom have taken turns as World No. 1. 

It doesn't hurt that the PGA Tour instituted a new policy this season, the strength-of-field regulation, which requires players to add an event to their schedules that they haven't played in the past four seasons if they didn't have at least 25 starts in the previous season. (Furyk said players age 45 and older are exempt from the rule.)

It's a decision that has received mixed opinions from players. McIlroy, for one, supports the policy.

"It makes you go to different places,” he said. “This year, it's Hartford. I mean, I may come back next year because I like it so much.”

Furyk sees the benefits for sponsors and tournaments, but concedes that he voted against the proposal while he was on the Tour's policy board. 

"I always told the Tour I was afraid if we gave an inch, they'd take a mile," he said. "If, indeed, I am an independent contractor, I don't care for that part." 

The boost in field strength can't be attributed solely to the Tour's new regulation. It's also a reflection of the way the Travelers staff treat players, caddies, significant others, swing instructors and trainers, and even the media. Bessette may be the most active executive of a tournament sponsor, making three to four annual trips to meet with players.

"We stopped calling it recruiting and started building relationships," Grube said.

"Friendship building" is how Bessette termed it. Last year, he planted the seed with McIlroy about playing this year during a conversation at The Players Championship. 

This week, Bessette has started making a new list of improvements. He pulled out his trusty notepad with a half-dozen items to address. The security guards weren't smiling, and a grass-stained wall needed to be power-washed. And then there was a good problem: Wednesday's diversity-inclusion event has outgrown its tent.

Said Henry: "To see how it’s come full circle in a decade is really special."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak