News & Opinion

Stars align at revived Travelers

Having survived the arduous regimen of daily thumbscrew sessions and the head-to-toe torture chamber that is the U.S. Open, golfers will be challenged to hold back their unbridled glee when they arrive at birdie-friendly TPC River Highlands for this week's Travelers Championship.

It’s the joy that permeates when the doors are flung open on the last day of the school year, fortune akin to leaving a Weight Watchers meeting and running into Willy Wonka in the parking lot.

When discussing incredible golf comebacks – your Ben Hogans, your Tiger Woodses – don’t forget to include the Travelers Championship. A little more than a decade ago, in 2005, when Buick announced that 2006 would be its last year as title sponsor in Hartford, the tournament was erased from the PGA Tour schedule for three months. The only glimmer of light in a dark time was that River Highlands might play host to a Champions Tour event in the future. Nathan Grube, tournament director at the Travelers, still has those sales decks. 

Funny how the dominoes can tumble sometimes. A free summer date popped up on the PGA Tour’s schedule when the old 84 Lumber near Pittsburgh went away, and a title sponsor wanting a summer dance on the PGA Tour stepped forward in Travelers, the insurance giant. The debut was in 2007, and the merger has created quite a ride.

Hartford has been a supportive and spirited golf setting for tens of thousands of New Englanders to watch the PGA Tour for nearly seven decades, dating to the debut of the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club in 1952. Sammy Davis Jr., the late entertainer, lent his name to the event for 16 years (1973-88), appearing in the pro-am, but as tournaments went, Hartford never was a powerbroker. 

That slowly has evolved. The Hartford stop no longer is a calendar-filler that allows the game a week to exhale after the national open. It has become a force, and top players are taking notice. Five of the top nine players in the Official World Golf Ranking have made the short commute from Long Island to Connecticut this week, including the first two major champions of 2018 (Masters winner Patrick Reed and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka). Also in town is Jordan Spieth, the young phenom who produced the Shot Heard ’Round the World one year ago as a first-time visitor to Hartford. Spieth holed a bunker shot for birdie in a playoff against his Class of 2011 pal, Daniel Berger – setting off an electrifying celebratory scene around the 18th green – and fans are just now settling back down in their seats.

What gave Grube his biggest chills that Sunday wasn’t the shot itself and the memorable, if not awkward, full-body bump between Spieth and his caddie, Michael Greller. For the Travelers, sure, this was a signature moment to live on for years. But Grube knew what it meant beyond the tournament. 

“I was so proud of this community,” said Grube, a transplanted New Englander since 2005, when he moved to Connecticut after serving as tournament director at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Jackson, Miss.. 

“I was very proud ... but I knew that shot would shine this massive spotlight on the event, and I was so happy for our community. I know how hard people have worked to get it here. This is a very personal event for this community. There are 4,000 volunteers that come out here, and they feel like it’s theirs. So it was pride, yes, but you also knew you were part of history.”

Grube and his full-time staff of 12 (15 interns also pitch in) never step off the treadmill in trying to improve as a tournament. This week, Travelers has a new tent provider, food vendor and new security company. Here’s an example of the tournament’s attention to detail and motivated quest to constantly grow and improve: This week, instead of fans waiting for hot dogs, burgers and water in traditionally long lines under the summer sun, they can enter mini-convenience stores, and with an increase in registers, that means guests will make a purchase and exit in nearly half the time. There also will be the debut of mobile concession carts that will stay ahead of the day’s most prominent groups meaning that fans following those games will not be left behind.

“I see these things, and keep asking, ‘Why does this make so much sense?’ ” Grube said, laughing. 

To really improve the tournament, though, Travelers needed to boost its field. From the earliest days of Travelers coming onboard, Andy Bessette, the company's vice-president and CAO, has joined Grube in traveling to other events to meet and develop relationships with players. He had a key moment early on when he met Bubba Watson. Instead of asking Watson if he would come to play the Travelers, he asked him this: “Hey, Bubba, what can we do to make our tournament better?” Watson, expecting the usual recruitment pitch, was left speechless. “Nobody’s really ever asked me that," he told Bessette.

“Andy,” Grube says, “doesn’t know another way to do it.”

So, asking how to improve the Travelers has been an ongoing question asked of players, caddies, wives, and the thousands of fans who attend each year and are asked to email suggestions to Info@TravelersChampionship.com. There are 49 events on the PGA Tour schedule, and it’s not easy to stand out from the rest. Travelers isn’t alone in providing services such as dry cleaning for players and wash-and-fold for caddies. It just does so many of those little things. Bessette goes fishing with Kevin Streelman, a past winner. Two-time major winner Zach Johnson and his caddie, Damon Green, love pizza from Pepe’s, a well-known eatery 45 minutes down the road in New Haven. So Grube finds a way to get the pizza they love delivered to the tournament. 

Grube and his staff have what is called the “Master Doc,” described as a “monster” document that lists as many as 1,200 issues/suggestions for the tournament. Each one is listed and assigned to a staffer to produce accountability, some for this week’s tournament, some potentially for next year.

“Do we accomplish them all?” Grube asks. “No, but I would say that attitude has driven us.”

Spieth will be asked to relive and describe “The Shot” this week, and he doesn’t mind reliving it over and over. It was special. 

“I don't know if I'll ever have a moment like that in my golfing career,” Spieth, a three-time major champion, said last month. “It was really, in a span of, you know, 15 seconds, it was as cool as anything I've experienced.”

He said he gets chills every time he sees it. So does Grube, albeit for reasons that extend beyond one shot and a trophy. Driven to improve his event, Grube says the goal at Travelers is never really to “arrive,” but simply to keep moving on this open-ended journey to getting better. And that has made for an enjoyable odyssey. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: jeffbabz@att.net. Twitter: @jeffbabz62