First played in 1952 and staged at different venues in the Greater Hartford area, the tournament initially known as the Insurance City Open was a stalwart on the PGA Tour and an institution in Connecticut. Billy Casper won it four times, Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson each took the title twice and entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. lent his name to the event for 16 years, from 1973 to 1988.
But it was set to disappear after the 2006 edition. As popular and well-attended as it may have been, the event was losing its title sponsor (Buick) as well as its spot on the PGA Tour calendar.
“We had a situation,” said Nathan Grube, who had only recently become tournament director of what was then called the Buick Championship. “And it looked like this long-standing event was over, so much so that we had started considering alternatives, such as the Champions Tour or the LPGA.”
Grube and his colleagues received something of a reprieve, however, when 84 Lumber gave up its title sponsorship of a PGA Tour event. That opened up the week after the U.S. Open, and it created the possibility that the Hartford tournament would not have to go away after all.
But Grube realized that changes needed to be made if the tournament had any chance of succeeding with its second chance. More than anything else, that meant finding the right title sponsorship. In time, he was able to do that when Travelers, which had been a partner of the event since its inception, agreed to take on a much bigger role.
So, in 2007, it became the Travelers Championship. And to say that it has prospered since then would be an understatement. For one thing, the tournament, which is being held this week at TPC River Highlands, has become among the best-attended on the PGA Tour, regularly attracting galleries of more than 40,000 spectators a day. Even for the practice rounds. Only the WM Phoenix Open brings in more.
These days, the Travelers is also regarded as a favorite of tour professionals, largely due to the very gracious and generous ways that organizers treat not only the players but also their families and caddies. They also appreciate how the venue has been upgraded in recent years. That includes construction of a new 23-acre practice facility (which that famous ball banger Vijay Singh has described as one of the best in professional golf), extensive improvements to the course, which has hosted the event since 1984, and the building of a 40,000-square-foot clubhouse.
In addition, the purse continues to grow, with the amount for this year’s tourney standing at $8.3 million and the winner’s share at nearly $1.5 million.
As a result, the Travelers continually attracts the best players in the game, and the roster of recent champions includes Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson (three times) and Jordan Spieth. And the tournament has a habit of producing epic drama. Remember, the eight-hole sudden death playoff that Harris English won over Kramer Hickok last year? Or the bunker shot that Spieth buried in the cup on No. 18 on the first playoff hole in 2017 to best Daniel Berger? The Travelers is also where Jim Furyk became the first golfer to record a 58 in a PGA Tour event, in 2016.
Then there is the charitable component, with the championship generating $22.5 million for nearly 800 nonprofits since Travelers, which is the tour’s official property casualty insurance provider, became title sponsor.
Things have gone so well, in fact, that Travelers decided last year to extend its role with the event throughout 2030.
Travelers executive Andy Bessette makes a tradition of mowing the seventh fairway on the Saturday night of the Travelers Championship.
“The hope was to provide great competition for golfers and spectators alike and great entertainment,” said Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Travelers. “And we think we have been able to do that.”
Bessette also sees the many ways that the Travelers Championship has benefited the company.
“For one thing, it fits our model with who we are as a company,” he said. “We like the charity component, and we like the community component, as well, and how it allows us to give back to this state. It was also good for business, and we appreciated how much our agents, our customers and our distributors like golf.
“Branding is critically important for us, but we are not a company that does a lot of advertising. Golf in general, and the Travelers specifically, works so very well for us.”
Grube, who remains tournament director all these years later, is just as pleased.
“We have amazing fan support and an incredible title sponsor that works hard to make our event bigger and better year after year,” he said. “We have achieved tremendous success working with Travelers and the PGA Tour, and we could not be more grateful for our partnership. I know the best is yet to come.”
“Jordan Spieth told me that the reaction from the crowd after he holed that bunker shot in 2017 was the sort of thing he usually only felt at a major. He said the ground was shaking.” – Andy Bessette
Things were not looking so rosy when Travelers, which is based in New York City but has long boasted a major presence in Connecticut and employs more than 7,000 in the state, took over as title sponsor. And Bessette knew much work needed to be done.
“We wanted the tournament to be an extension of who we were as a company, and that meant we wanted it to be the best it could be,” he said. “We as a business never accept the status quo. We are always pushing to get better, and that was our goal when we became the title sponsor for the Travelers.”Interestingly, some ideas for how to make it better came from Connecticut-based ESPN commentator Mike Tirico.
“I had gotten to know Mike, and he gave me a list of things we could do to improve the tournament,” Bessette said. “The first of those was getting the best players in the world to play, and one way to do that, he said, was to treat their families and caddies extremely well. That meant chartering planes to get them to our tournament from the U.S. Open the week before and making sure there were lots of fun things for their families to do here, whether taking a boat cruise on the Connecticut River or going to a minor-league baseball game.”
“We provided day care for their children,” Grube said. “We organized visits to local lacrosse and horseback-riding camps. We staged a caddie-appreciation day and took care of any dietary needs their kids had. And we invested heavily in the TPC River Highlands facility to make it one of the best in the game.”
Added Bessette: “We came to view the players as our customers. And we looked at how we could do things better. We took the time to get to know them, to build a relationship and also to ask their advice.”
Over time, the players came to greatly value those touches. They also appreciated the fans and the way they reacted to them.
“Jordan Spieth told me that the reaction from the crowd after he holed that bunker shot in 2017 was the sort of thing he usually only felt at a major,” Bessette said. “He said the ground was shaking.”
Listening to Grube and Bessette go back and forth, it is easy to see another reason why the Travelers Championship is doing so well. They work well together and have done so from the very beginning.
Grube knows just what his friend and partner is talking about.
“Rory (McIlroy) once said that he could not believe how many spectators were around the first tee at 6:45 in the morning when golfers started teeing off,” he said. “And he could not get over all those fans around the 18th green doing the wave.”
Listening to Grube and Bessette go back and forth, it is easy to see another reason why the Travelers Championship is doing so well. And that has to do with their strong partnership. They work well together and have done so from the very beginning.
They also have a lot of support from some 4,000 volunteers, about half of whom are Travelers employees, and a staff of 14 who work full-time on the tournament for Grube along with 10 interns who help out from January through June.
It has been a group effort, going all the way back to 2007. It is also a case study of how to do a PGA Tour event – and a title sponsorship – right.
Photos: Courtesy Travelers Championship
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