HARTFORD, Conn – Player recruitment is among the most vital lifelines for the success of a PGA Tour event, and the Travelers Championship is plenty fortunate to have a unique figure to help the cause.
Andy Bessette, the executive vice president and chief administrative officer of The Travelers Companies, Inc., is the only PGA Tour title sponsor leader to travel to tournaments and walk the practice range to try to help land the best players in the world and ask how things can be improved.
“Yes, I am,” Bessette said with a wry smile, “but I wish I had more company.”
Bessette’s “company” is tournament director Nathan Grube, who is more than delighted to have a major league support system for the biggest sporting event in Connecticut.
“It is an absolute team effort between tournament and title sponsor regarding player relationships that we have established over the last 16-plus years,” Grube said. “We simply would not have the players we have each year without Andy.”
Bessette and Grube go to a handful of events a year, and it epitomize the Travelers exec’s guiding business principle.
“Every year our motto, and I’ve always had this motto throughout my whole life, is that the status quo is unacceptable,” Bessette said. “You have to always get better. If you’re not better tomorrow than you are today than you’re going backwards.”
The 67-year-old Bessette specializes in his credo while getting to know more and more players every year, starting in 2006, when he and Grube began meeting and building relationships with players, their families, caddies, media members and many others.
“We talked to everybody,” Bessette said. “We asked (Fairfield native) J.J. Henry, who was the defending champion, and Bubba Watson, ‘What’s important to you guys? We want to have the best tournament on the PGA Tour.’ They were shocked we even asked the question. We asked (then-ESPN personality) Mike Tirico, ‘What do we have to do?’ And we continue to do that every year. A couple years ago I saw Ted Scott, who was Bubba’s caddie at the time, and I asked him, ‘What can we do to keep making this tournament better?’ He said, ‘Are you kidding me? You already do everything.’
“We’ll never stop. We will always ask what can we do better, how can we be greater, how can we attract the best players in the world.”
Travelers becoming title sponsor in 2007 virtually saved the tournament that began as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club 70 years ago as a fundraiser for the Greater Hartford Jaycees. From humble beginnings, the event is now one of the best attended in the world, attracts solid player fields despite being the week after the U.S. Open and has raised more than $45.5 million for hundreds of local charities, including $22.5 million since the insurance magnet became title sponsor, capped by $2.2 million in 2021.
Thanks to his dedication, diligence, leadership and success on countless fronts, Bessette will be inducted into the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame at the Hartford Downtown Marriott on June 20, the start of Travelers Championship week at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. He will be joined by Wethersfield native Bruce Edwards, one of the leading PGA Tour caddies for more than three decades for Hall of Famers Tom Watson and 1995 Canon Greater Hartford Open champion Greg Norman before he died of ALS in 2004 at the age of 49.
“I’m very appreciative and proud but also a little embarrassed,” Bessette said of his induction. “This recognition represents all of the work that our teams – Nathan’s team at the Travelers Championship and my team at Travelers – have done throughout the years to build a world-class event. I can name everyone in our groups who have helped take this tournament to where it is. I’m really humbled, but it’s not just me. Only a great team can make this work.”
Bessette said one of the things that his team has worked so hard to do is provide sponsors’ exemptions to future stars of the PGA Tour. Recent choices have been Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, while earlier exemptions were given to players such as Patrick Cantlay, Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson.
“It’s important to identify and include the next class of top young talent,” Bessette said. “There can be a loyalty that comes along with giving people opportunities in their careers. There are several examples of how guys remember the opportunity we gave them, and then they come back to play our event after they’ve won majors. We’ve helped them out, and we’ve gotten to know them as people. I think this is reflective of Travelers and how we care about people. We care about what they think and about bringing people together. People are more important than brick and mortar. We’ve worked really hard at Travelers to build something that is enticing to people because we want to attract the best young people to come work for us.
“Jay Fishman and Alan Schnitzer both deserve a ton of credit for the Travelers Championship. Jay was our CEO when we signed on as title sponsor and he had the vision and passion for the tournament, and recognized the effect it would have on this community. Alan, our current CEO, is extraordinarily passionate about the event and involved with every detail. He fully appreciates what the tournament means to our community and how many local charities benefit. The support from both has been instrumental in building the Travelers Championship into something very special.”
Bessette said he has a special feeling about being inducted with Edwards.
“I look at the relationship Bruce had with Tom Watson, caddie and player,” Bessette said. “They had a great partnership, experienced the highest highs golf can offer at the professional level, and I have the utmost respect for all they accomplished together. I’m honored the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame thinks that I would be at the same level. I find it humbling and surprising to be regarded in the same breath as Bruce Edwards.”
Golf hasn’t been the only notable sport for Bessette, who lives in West Hartford. He was an Olympic hammer thrower who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut in 1975 and then a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island. He was a four-time Division I All-American as a hammer thrower and won the Olympic Trials in 1980, which put him on the U.S. Olympic team. Unfortunately, the United States did not participate in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
After graduating from UConn, Bessette was an economic geographer who helped companies determine the best locations to open offices. In 1977, he was hired by Sheraton and joined the Olympic Job Opportunities program to compete with the Soviet bloc of countries by working half a day and training during the other half. After Sheraton discontinued its program in 1980, Bessette joined Travelers.
“I worked in the mail room. I worked in the supply room. I worked my way up from all those basic functions you need to run a company,” Bessette said.
In 1984, Bessette became an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team but decided it was time to transition full time to Travelers. He continued his work in human resources and facilities where he was in charge of company infrastructure. Travelers is headquartered in New York but has major operations in Hartford.
In 2006, Bessette and Fishman spearheaded the company’s drive to move Travelers into the title sponsorship of a PGA Tour event. The tournament had been the Buick Championship from 2004-2006 but was off the PGA Tour schedule for 2007 after the automobile company ended its sponsorship. It was headed for the PGA Tour Champions, but 84 Lumber Company suddenly ended its sponsorship on the PGA Tour and Travelers, which has been a tournament sponsor on some level since the Connecticut PGA Tour event started, quickly stepped up to fill the void. Research had told Bessette and Fishman that golf was the most popular sport for insurance companies.
Bessette and Grube have been instrumental in improving the event every year. Since 2009, it has won 15 PGA Tour Best Of awards, capped in 2017 when it received Tournament of the Year, Most Fan Friendly Event, Best Tournament Sales and the inaugural Players Choice, a category voted on exclusively by PGA Tour players. Other awards include Best Use of Player, Best Title Sponsor Integration, Best Charity Integration and Best Special Event, which was earned in 2016 for hosting the Bruce Edwards Foundation dinner to benefit ALS research.
Last year, Travelers announced that it had extended its title sponsorship through 2030, which will make the company the longest-serving title sponsor in tournament history.
“We’ve grown this thing into something that’s just enormous and beyond belief,” Bessette said.
What Bessette has meant to Travelers and the tournament was best said by Schnitzer a few years ago.
“The heart and passion Andy brings to everything he does has had an outsized impact on Travelers and the Hartford community,” Schnitzer said. “His leadership role with the Travelers Championship has brought millions to the state’s economy each year and generated millions for hundreds of nonprofit organizations since Travelers became the title sponsor. It’s safe to say that Andy has made Travelers, our community and everything else he’s touched better than it was before he got involved. He is a leader in every sense of the word.”
Yes, Andy Bessette has followed his own advice and gotten better and better every year.