WORCESTER, Mass – Last summer, sportswriter Bruce Berlet was looking forward with pride to covering the annual PGA Tour stop in Connecticut for the 50th consecutive year.
Unfortunately, the pandemic ended his streak. With no vaccine yet available, fans were banned when Dustin Johnson won the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut, last June. In addition, very few media members received credentials to cover the tournament and Berlet wasn’t one of them.
“Very disappointing,” said Berlet who has covered 33 Masters tournaments, 15 U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, three Ryder Cup matches and for 6 years covered UCONN women’s basketball including one Final Four in 1995. “Just the fact that it would have been 50 in a row. I am the senior citizen in this thing so you would have thought I would have gotten some special dispensation.”
At the same time, he realized that COVID was a major problem at the time.
“It was disappointing,” he said, “but all that those people had to go through to get in there with the swabbing of their noses. I was just as happy to have my feet propped up and watching it on TV, I’ll be honest with you.”
Berlet, 73, covered the tournament for the Hartford Courant from 1971 through 2008, and then wrote about it as a freelancer for various magazines and websites, including www.newengland.golf. He was the pulse beat of Connecticut’s golf community as he chronicled the sport for all of the 38 years he worked at the Hartford Courant. Few reporters immerse themselves in their beat the way Berlet did with golf on the state and national scenes.
Accolades from the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame from 2009 states, “His passion for the game and for those who play it was evident in his writing. Because his work informed state golfers and enhanced their enjoyment of the game for so long, he belongs in the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame.”
Berlet is media credentialed for this year’s event, which will be held June 24-27, at TPC River Highlands and he’s looking forward to the assignment.
“It’s quite nice after the disappointment of last year of having my streak broken,” Berlet said. “Plus, there will be fans around again, and I’ll be able to renew acquaintances with players whom I’ve known for decades, especially Phil Mickelson.”
He’s believed to have covered the tournament longer than any other member of the media.
Over the decades, he became good friends with such PGA Tour stars as Lee Trevino, Fuzzy Zoeller and Paul Azinger. Trevino met his wife, Claudia Bove, when she sold lemonade outside her home near the 16th tee at Wethersfield CC, the original site of the tournament, and he spent time there each summer. So Berlet interviewed Trevino often.
Berlet, a 1970 UConn graduate, feels fortunate to have covered the first of the UConn women’s basketball team’s 11 national championships and he was also a beat writer for the Hartford Whalers, but he considers the Travelers to be the premier sporting event in his home state.
He doesn’t hesitate when asked to rank his most memorable moment at the Travelers. It was Jordan Spieth in 2017 when he became the first golfer to hole a bunker shot in a playoff to win a PGA Tour event. He holed a 20-yard bunker shot for birdie on 18 to defeat Daniel Berger.
“It’s historic,” Berlet said.
After his bunker shot, Spieth chest bumped his caddie, Michael Greller, and Berlet remembers the two of them returning to the bunker an hour later to have their photo taken. Spieth left with the flag and Greller took the rake.
Another great memory was Paul Azinger sinking a 45-foot chip from the fringe on the final hole in 1989 to win the tournament for the second time in three years.
In 1998, Olin Browne chipped in from 40 feet on the first playoff hole to beat Stewart Cink and Larry Mize for his first PGA Tour victory. When Browne returned to TPC River Highlands for the media day the following year, Berlet asked to have the pin on 18 located where it had been for the playoff. Then Berlet told Browne he’d give him 10 balls to see if he could chip in again. Browne didn’t have his wedge so he borrowed Berlet’s and chipped in his first attempt.
In 1996, a tournament official called Berlet at 8 a.m. on the Saturday of the event to instruct him to be at the media room in an hour for a press conference. Berlet was reluctant to get to the tournament that early, but the official urged him to show up. He wouldn’t tell him why though.
Berlet was the only newspaper reporter on hand when defending champion Greg Norman, in a fourth place tie at the time, announced he had disqualified himself after realizing he had used an unapproved ball. It lacked the proper stamp.
As Norman and Berlet left the media room, a photographer snapped a picture of them that was splashed across newspapers all over the world. Berlet’s wife, Nancy, had the photo made up to look as if it was a Sports Illustrated cover and had it framed. The photo hangs on the wall in Berlet’s family room.
Berlet’s favorite golfer was Arnold Palmer. Berlet’s parents lived in Orlando, 15 minutes from Bay Hill, so he met the King several times and had breakfast with him one morning. Palmer’s first victory in the U.S. was the 1956 Insurance City Open at Wethersfield CC, the original name and site of the Travelers. No, Berlet didn’t cover the tournament that year.
Berlet played six holes with Palmer during a media day at Nashawtuc CC in Concord, Massachusetts.
“My claim to fame is I beat him on one hole,” Berlet fondly recalls.
Another claim to fame is he won the two first club championships at the TPC of Connecticut before it became TPC River Highlands. His handicap was once as low as a 4, but hip, back and knee ailments have caught up with him and turned him into a recreational golfer. He dislocated his right knee playing the 13th hole at Augusta, the day after the Masters in 1979.
Golf wasn’t Berlet’s only sport. At Litchfield High, he was the goalie for the 1963 state boys’ soccer championship team and he played for the 1965 state basketball team.
Berlet is a member of the Connecticut State Golf Association Hall of Fame and the Travelers Championship presented him with the Ralph Hunt Media Award. He also earned first place from the Golf Writers Association of America for a feature he wrote on John Daly. In addition to the unparalleled accomplishment of covering one PGA Tour event – Travelers Championship – for 50 years, Berlet interviewed a 19-year old Tiger Woods, and his father, Earl, in 1995 at Brooklawn Country Club as part of a local exhibition for kids and parents.
Berlet’s wife, Nancy, was the first female sports writer for the Hartford Courant. The Berlets have a daughter, Brooke, and a grandson, Ryan.