Exclusive Interview: Bubba Watson

Bubba Watson, a 12-time PGA Tour winner including two Masters, and reigning Travelers Championship winner talks with sportscaster Chris Berman during media day to promote this year's tournament, which will be held June 20-23 at TPC River Highland, Cromwell, Connecticut.

CROMWELL, Conn. – Bubba Watson is arguably the most emotional player on the PGA Tour.

Travelers Championship officials and fans learned just that for the first time in 2010, when Watson parred the second playoff hole to defeat Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank and win his first PGA Tour title at TPC River Highlands. After shaking hands with Pavin and Verplank and hugging caddie Ted Scott, Watson headed toward wife Angie, buried his face in her shoulder and bawled like a baby for about 30 seconds before being able to do an interview with CBS announcer Peter Kostis.

The emotion spilled out of Watson because he had finally won at the highest level before his father, Gerry Sr., a Green Beret who taught his son to play golf, died of throat cancer four months later.

“There was nothing (doctors) could do so we were watching the last parts of his life,” Watson said during Media Day on May 14. “It was one of those things where golf was my safe haven to get away, a safe haven for my family to focus on watching me instead of the terrible stuff happening.”

Watson, 40, has had similar emotional displays after many of his other 11 victories, but the first has led to a special relationship with the tournament that has continued to strengthen for another decade.

In 2016, Watson donated $100,000 to the Bruce Edwards Foundation Dinner to honor the Wethersfield native who caddied for 30 years on the PGA Tour, mostly for Hall of Famer Tom Watson, one of several dignitaries to speak during an event that raised more than $1.1 million for ASL, which claimed Edwards’ life. The dinner earned the tournament the PGA Tour’s “Best Special Event” Award, one of 14 that it has received since 2008.

Then last year, Watson doubled down, donating $200,000 of his $1,260,000 winnings to the tournament, enabling it to reach a record $2 million for charity in a single year. He suddenly decided to make the donation after he heard it had raised $1.8 million.

Three-time winner of the Travelers Championship Bubba Watson talks with the media during media day May 14 at TPC River Highlands.

“The heart is my biggest motivation,” Watson said. “When something hits me, I run with it and ask for forgiveness from my wife afterward. When I heard $1.8 million, I said, no, this tournament is too good, so we need to get it to two million, so that’s why I came up with $200,000. If it had been $1.7 million, I probably would have said $300,000. It’s one of those things; it just hit me, so I walked over to Andy (Bessette, the executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Travelers) and Alan (Schnitzer, Travelers CEO) quietly, no microphone, and said, ‘I want to give you $200,000. I wasn’t trying to boast, wasn’t trying to do anything, get any credit for myself or my family. This isn’t for publicity, I just want to do it.’ They were like, ‘We want to tell people.’ I was like, ‘If you have to, you can.’

“I told them, ‘Kids are big on my heart. I’m doing this because of what you do for them and what you mean to the community, how you help around the world. I want to be a part of this.’ It sounds better at $2 million than $1.8. … It was just that I’m part of Travelers now and this area and community, so I wanted to show my love and support. As we can see with the voting of the PGA Tour players that Travelers is the best tournament (the past two years). Just everything about the tournament is growing, and everybody sees that, players see that, and they hear the buzz. They know the buzz, and now more and more people are just going to get bigger and bigger.”

Those sentiments drew applause from most of the more than 100 people in attendance, including some members of the media, myself included.

Ironically, in his first Travelers Championship victory and his third last year, Watson rallied from six strokes back entering the final round to win by three. It has enabled him to surpass his original goal of 10 PGA Tour victories, and he’s now only three wins and one major from qualifying for the World Golf Hall of Fame, which would be quite the accomplishment fora self-taught golfer from Baghdad, Fla.

“Bubba is a personal champion for us,” tournament director Nathan Grube said. “We have really got to know him over the years, and it has been a joy and a privilege.”

“Bubba is phenomenal and such an important part of the tournament,” Bessette said. “We can’t thank him enough for (the donation) and for all that the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp does for so many children who have different afflictions and fight the battles of their lives. It’s just terrific to be able to partner with all of our charities, more than 150 last year, and since we’ve been title sponsor we’ve given more than $16.7 million to charity and over 750 organizations that have benefitted from it.

“Bubba has been the target of my questions and saying, okay, so how do we make this better, what are we missing, because you guys play a lot of other tournaments. What can we do to make it better?”

TPC River Highlands is opening a new 40,000 sq. ft. clubhouse in June, prior to the Travelers Championship, an very similar to the clubhouse at TPC Boston (Norton, MA).

Watson shed a few more tears on Media Day as he listened to 14-year-old Emma Thistlewaite of New Hartford, who was introduced by her mother, Pam, after an introduction from Jimmy Canton, president and CEO of Hole in the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford that was founded by late actor Paul Newman and has partnered with the tournament since it became title sponsor in 2007.

In 2015, Emma Thistlewaite was diagnosed at age 11 with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in her left upper arm. She began a chemotherapy regimen that took she and her mother away from their home and family for three of every four weeks.

“The first six months were a very dark period,” Pam Thistlewaite said. “It was difficult as a mom to watch her suffering and in pain because of the chemotherapy and the surgical replacement of her left humerus with a metal prosthesis. It was also difficult to watch Emma’s dream of being a gymnast and a cheerleader vanish and watch her grieve over it.”

Pam said one of the bright spots during that time was the Hole in the Wall hospital outreach program, which gave Emma some of the only smiles while she was in the hospital. Emma’s life gradually improved, but she has relapsed twice since that first family weekend in 2015.

“I am so thankful Hole in the Wall has continued to be such a source of happiness for Emma and our family during these last four years,” Pam Thistlewaite said.

So has Emma.

“The first time I went to camp at Hole in the Wall was back in 2016 and I had never been away from home for something like this,” Emma told her enthralled listeners. “I was scared at first, but I had a lot of other girls in my cabin, and a number of them had also had cancer. We didn’t need to talk about it, but we understood what each other had gone through. I didn’t really have that with my friends at home, so it made it easier. I was in a wheelchair that first year, following my first relapse in my leg and my lungs, but I was still able to participate in so many activities at Camp. The doctors and nurses on staff there took such good care of me.

“The last two summers were so much easier. I was no longer in treatment and no longer in a wheelchair. I did every activity at Camp, my favorites being the rope course and zipline, horseback riding, archery, swimming, the cooking zone, arts and crafts and stage night. I haven’t just bonded with other campers while I was at Camp, I bonded with the counselors, as well. We spent a lot of time together, and they made us all feel loved. I was especially inspired when I had counselors who were pediatric cancer survivors. They gave hope for my future.

“One day I plan to be a counselor at Hole in the Wall because I want to give campers the same hope that my counselors gave me. Camp makes me so happy. It is a magical place, and I can’t wait to go back again this summer.”

When Emma’s touching talk ended, she received a well-deserved standing ovation as she headed toward Watson and handed him a special plaque for his help with her and the other campers. Bubba has been to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and has danced and sung with the kids.

“The speech was unbelievable,” Watson said while hugging Emma as cameras flashed.

Watson and many others in the crowd wiped away tears, including Grube, who had difficulty resuming the press conference.

“Telling a story like that for the first time is just kind of reinvigorating,” Grube said. “It’s reenergizing to know the better we do our job, they are amazing stewards with those funds and how they have grown, the magic of what Camp is to more and more children, more and more families. We couldn’t be more proud to be a partner with them and what they’re doing.”

Canton emphatically thanked Watson and everyone associated with the tournament.

“The Travelers Championship and the generosity of the title sponsor Travelers has shown just extraordinary spirit and kindness and vision for wanting to give back to so many charities,” Canton said. “I also want to say a heartfelt massive thank you to Bubba Watson. You’re just an inspiration. What you did for the Camp last year is extraordinary, and it pairs good fortune with misfortune, which is what Camp is all about and why Paul started the camp. We are so lucky to have you as part of our friendship circle, and your faith in the camp just really inspires all of us, so thank you.”

More tears flowed.

Eight of Watson’s PGA Tour titles have come in three events – the Travelers Championship (three), Genesis Open (three) and Masters (two). Why so much success at TPC River Highlands?

“My affinity, the love for this place, is just the communication between player and sponsor, the communication of my family, my family loves this tournament now because of my situation,” Watson said. “The situation with my dad, and that’s why Ryder Cup means so much to me. Every year that I make the Ryder Cup team or as a vice captain, I tell them why it means so much is because the only event my dad ever saw me win was the Travelers. The last event he ever watched me play in from his hospital bed was the Ryder Cup.

“So the affinity is just coming back here because of what it means to my family, my mom, my first time winning but then on my dad’s side of him. So this city, this town, this community has been great for me and my family, and that’s really why the love started.
… It’s just one of those things when you get here, the energy you feel from the fans and the people around the event. You get energized, and there’s certain places you show up you’re just energized. No matter how good you play or how bad you play you’re still energized at those places.”

Watson said he’s also energized for this week’s PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y., that he considers the hardest he has ever played under normal conditions and where he tied for 18th behind winner Lucas Glover in the soggy 2009 U.S. Open, which ended on Monday, and a few Barclays, a FedExCup playoff event.

“The key around that golf course is hitting the fairways because the iron shots are going to be longer, the holes are longer, so you’ve got to hit the fairways so you can play to the green,” Watson said. “Somebody is not going to shoot 30 under par because the golf course is that difficult, so you’ve just got to play steady and focus on hitting the fairways, and then like every golf tournament, you’ve got to make the 10-footers.”

Tiger Woods is the favorite after winning the season-ending Tour Championship in November and the Masters in April. The latter was his 81st career victory, one shy of Sam Snead’s all-time record, and 15th major title, three shy of Jack Nicklaus’ record. After hearing the “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger” chants as he hugged his caddie, Newtown native Joe LaCava, and then his mother, two children and girlfriend, Woods headed to the clubhouse to sign his scorecard and was greeted by several players, including Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler, Ian Poulter and fellow Masters champions Watson, Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara, a close friend of Woods.

Like most people, Watson marvels at how Woods has been able to recover so adroitly from numerous knee and back injuries and a personal life that was on the rocks several times and eventually led to a divorce.

“As a fan of golf and as a fan of sports, to see Tiger Woods come back from where he was, physically, mentally, all of those things, for his family and everything to see him come back and win is remarkable,” Watson said. “It’s the best comeback story that we’ve ever seen. And as a past Masters champion, you don’t want any more new people in the (Champions) locker room. You want anybody with a green jacket to win. If it’s not you, you want the next guy, so at the champions’ dinner on Tuesday night we pull for all of us. No matter how old or how young, it doesn’t matter; you’re already in here, so let’s just keep it these people. So that’s why we wore the green jackets out there to meet him. He’s a brotherhood, right? Well, I’m kind of in that one since he’s got five.

“And then a few years ago, me and him as friends, I told him I’d love to be there for his next major (win), and he said, ‘I’d love for you to be there.’ So for me it was more about a promise to him that I would be there, and luckily I was there. I made the cut, and I was there to see and support it. I told him a long time ago that I loved him as a person. As a golfer, you’re good, but I love you as a person. I know your struggles and blah blah blah, so I want to be there when you win. So for him to win and to be able to be there … Nobody knows this, but I got a special text the next day. It was pretty cool to get a text from 15-time major champion Tiger Woods that said, Thanks.”

Longtime ESPN personality Chris Berman and Travelers Championship supporter, who emceed the interview with Watson on Media Day, said, “That says a lot.”

When Watson returns to Connecticut in five weeks, a replica of his Bubba’s Sweet Spot restaurant in Pensacola will be there for him to see in the Fan Zone at TPC River Highlands.

“They are making it for the kids and to honor me for the wins,” Watson said. “It will be cool. They are not asking me to hammer nails and put a building together. I don’t know what their dream is going to be or how they are going to set it up, but they know what mine looks like and they know what kids like, so it will be interesting to see it all done up.”

Watson will then be looking to tie Billy Casper for most victories in the tournament that began as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club in 1952.

In what has become a tradition, Bessette and Grube made a special presentation to the defending champion at the end of the press conference. This time they presented Bubba with two Travelers chairs with the company’s name and logo on the handles for use on his patio. They also gave him four drink mugs with his name and those of his wife and two children, Caleb and Dakota.

“We hope you’ll enjoy them and keep them in your camper and think of us all the time,” Bessette said. “But you have to keep coming back, but thank you, Bubba. Thanks for being here.”

During his visit, Watson got a tour of a new clubhouse, which is 40,000 square feet, four times the size of the original facility. It includes meeting and dining areas, larger pro shop and locker rooms for men and women, two commercial-grade kitchens and patios overlooking the course that can be used for numerous activities, including weddings that have already been booked. It also has numerous interactive touch-screen video boards dotting the walls, showing the history of the course and its champions.

The third-largest clubhouse on the PGA Tour is the latest in major upgrades to TPC River Highlands. A new 23-acre state-of-the-art practice facility, including The First Tee of Connecticut Learning Center, was completed in 2008 and major renovations to the course were done before the 2016 tournament.

“(The clubhouse) is really the third leg of the stool,” Bessette said. “Our goal, right from the beginning, was to make this the best tournament on the Tour. We try to improve it in some way each year.”

TPC River Highlands general manager David Corrado said the building was modeled after clubhouses at several other TPC courses, with modifications such as the use of Connecticut field stone to give it a New England look.

“This is just one more notch on Travelers belt,” Watson said. “They can market everything they’ve done over the last 10 or 12 years for this tournament. Believe me, guys notice.”

A year ago, the tournament had its best field since Travelers became title sponsor in 2007 and the best overall since the late 1990s and early 2000s. But it has already climbed a step higher this year thanks to World Golf Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson, the only back-to-back winner since the tournament began as the Insurance City Open in 1952, committing to play for the first time in 16 years.

Mickelson, the winner of 44 PGA Tour titles, including three major championships, was a big part of the earlier top-flight fields, but scheduling problems caused Lefty to miss the tournament since 2003. He committed to play in the inaugural Travelers Championship, but he injured his wrist in preparation for the U.S. Open the week before and was forced to withdraw. In five tournament starts, he has earned $1,295,320. After missing the cut in his tournament debut in 1992, he tied for 26th in 1994, won in 2001 and 2002 and tied for 58th in 2003.

But Travelers officials continually tried to lure Mickelson back. Each year, Bessette would see his friend Steve Loy “under the tree” at the Masters. The “tree” is a popular meeting place at Augusta National Golf Club where old friendships are rekindled and business matters are tended to. For Bessette and Loy, Mickelson’s college coach at Arizona State and now a longtime business partner and agent, it was about both.

It was where Bessette found out it was possible Mickelson would return to play in the Travelers Championship this year. Loy suggested Bessette and Grube go to the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., three weeks later.

“I went to speak with Phil in the locker room (at the Wells Fargo Championship),” Bessette said. “He said, ‘I’m so excited to be coming back to Hartford.’ I said, ‘The fans of Connecticut love you.’ A lot of pieces have to fall in place for a golfer to be able and want to play at the Travelers.”

A week later, Mickelson officially committed to an event that has its largest purse in its history, $7.2 million, so Bessette will have more time to visit with Loy, the president of the golf division at Lagardere-Unlimited.

Mickelson, 48, won the tournament when it was called the Canon Greater Hartford Open. Bessette was working at Travelers when Mickelson last appeared in Cromwell, but in St. Paul, Minn., and not involved with golf. Grube was the executive director of the First Tee of Greater Birmingham that summer, which was a year after Canon left as title sponsor and the year before Buick took over for three years (2004-06).

Though Mickelson hasn’t been in Connecticut since 2003, he has remained close to the tournament, even purchasing a $10,000 table at the Bruce Edwards Foundation Dinner. The dinner was hosted by Travelers Executive Chairman of the Board Jay Fishman, who announced in August 2015 that he had been diagnosed with ALS. He gave an inspiring 20-minute talk from his wheelchair during the dinner and died less than three weeks later.

Others in attendance included Tom and Bubba Watson, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, CBS announcer Jim Nance, award-winning author John Feinstein and dozens of players and caddies. It raised more than $1.1 million, with Bubba donating the $100,000 and Brian Gay contributing $10,000, which he won in the tournament’s closest-to-the-pin competition at The Umbrella at Hole 15½.

Mickelson’s return to Cromwell will be the first time he will play the week after a major championship since 2006. His family normally goes on vacation the week after the U.S. Open, which is June 13-16 at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, where Mickelson has won five times, including in February, but that vacation was pushed back a week.

Mickelson has been a runner-up in the U.S. Open a record six times, but a victory a week before the Travelers Championship in his home state of California would enable him to join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win a career Grand Slam.

Mickelson, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012, is No. 22 in the Official World Golf Ranking and one of 14 in the Top 23 who have already committed. Others include Watson, DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, who defends in the PGA Championship and later in the U.S. Open, 2017 PGA Championship winner Thomas, reigning British Open champion Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed, Paul Casey, Tony Finau, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Cantlay and 2012 Travelers Championship winner Marc Leishmann.

“It’s by far the best field we have had,” Bessette said. “I think we will end up with 15 of the top 25.”

And to think that a year ago high-profile players such as 2017 Travelers winner Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy expressed doubt that the Travelers could put together another collection of marquee players with the U.S. Open so far away for the fifth time. Hearing such sentiments, Grube and Bessette started recruiting players early.

“If you have ever worked with Andy, you know that if you ever said you can’t do something that just means I will show you that I can,” Grube said. “He said we need to redouble our efforts, go back out, make sure people understand who we are and what we are and let’s go out and build the best field we possibly said. It’s our relentless pursuit of the status quo being absolutely unacceptable, and every year we’re going to make this better, and that wouldn’t be possible without Andy’s leadership.”

Bessette concurred whole-heartedly.

“You don’t want to be disrespectful, but if somebody says something about that, that the Open, wherever that is, that the field wouldn’t be as good — are you kidding?” he said with a laugh. “That’s a challenge. Now the gauntlet has been thrown down, so we worked really hard to get a really good field early. … Eventually, they all come. They want to see what we’re doing. … I think we’re doing the right things. It’s just a matter of when it fits into their schedule and their lives.”

Travelers emphatically demonstrated its dedication to the tournament in 2014, when it became the first title sponsor to sign a 10-year contract extension with the PGA Tour. The tournament also offers players and their family and caddie a charter flight from the U.S. Open to Connecticut. It’s part of the reason why the tournament received the PGA Tour’s “Players Choice Award” twice and was named the “Tournament of the Year” for the first time in 2017. The “Players Choice” Award is voted on exclusively by PGA Tour members and is based on players’ experiences with tournament services, hospitality, player and family amenities, community support, attendance, golf course and other attributes.

Those were two of the record four awards that the tournament won in 2017, the others being “Most Fan Friendly Event” and “Best Tournament Sales.” The tournament has now received 14 PGA Tour awards since 2009, with the others being “Most Fan Friendly Event” (2010, 2012), “Best Title Sponsor Integration” (2009, 2010, 2012), “Best Marketing Program” (2011), “Best Use of Players” (2012), “Best Charity Integration” (2013) and “Best Special Event” (2016).

Some of the biggest names in professional golf make their only New England appearance at The Travelers Championship June 20-23.

Then in April, the tournament received a “President’s Award” from the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance during its annual Gold Key Dinner.

“The Travelers Championship is the benchmark for charity giving,” Alliance president Tim Jensen said while presenting the award to Grube.

The award is given to an individual, team or organization that has made a significant and positive impact on the state’s sports landscape. Connecticut’s biggest sporting event certainly covers all of those bases, having raised more than $40 million for more than 750 charities since it began in 1952 as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club, including the $16.7 million since Travelers became title sponsor in 2007.

“We’re incredibly honored to be recognized by the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance,” Bessette said when the award was announced. “The Gold Key Dinner celebrates the finest in Connecticut sports, and to be included among this year’s recipients was a testament to the hard work and dedication from so many people who have supported the tournament.”

Grube added, “It’s a privilege to work with so many people who tirelessly give their time and energy to make the Travelers Championship what it is. From the thousands of volunteers to all of our sponsors, we are humbled to receive this award.”

Crowds that have increased the past few years might surpass the record 323,000 that came out to see Mickelson and Co. in 2002. Five years later, Travelers basically saved the tournament after it lost its title sponsor. The event was set to move to the PGA Tour Champions, where many former tournament winners now play, but it would still have been a letdown after more than 50 years in the big leagues.

But when 84 Lumber Company suddenly ended its title sponsorship, Travelers stepped up to fill the void and finalized a four-year contract with the PGA Tour in only four days.

“People said we had had a great run, but we said that’s not where it would end,” said Grube, who became tournament director in 2005. “Now we have something special, and it’s wonderful to be a part of it.”

Bessette agreed.

“I can’t even tell you how proud we are at Travelers,” he said. “This pride all throughout our company with what we do with the Travelers Championship, we’re so proud to be a partner of the PGA Tour and with the staff at the Travelers Championship and with the board and everybody locally that has been involved with this tournament, and like a lot of us, since 1952, when it was the Insurance City Open.

“If you remember, 12 years ago we had lost the event, and it was a lot like the (Hartford) Whalers, it was gone. It was off the schedule. And I hear people say, well, they were going to cancel it. No, the PGA Tour did cancel it. It was off the schedule and gone. At the time Jay Fishman and I talked and said, you know what, this is a great opportunity, let’s pursue it, and before you knew it we were the title sponsor and started our first tournament in 2007.

“Our goal from Day One has always been to make this the best stop on the PGA Tour, second to none. I’m never happy. Well, I’m happy sometimes. I’m happy with different things. But I’m never happy that you have arrived because Nathan is correct, it’s been our motto from Day One that the day you accept the status quo is the day you start going backwards, so you always have to try to get better, you always forge ahead, and I think we’ve been somewhat successful with it.

“The field has gotten better year after year, but the Players Choice Award is special to us because it’s voted on by each of the PGA Tour pros. It’s not voted on by the staff at the PGA Tour. It’s not voted on by anybody other than the players, and that means the world to us.

“And we’ve always tried to make the Travelers Championship about something for everybody. You don’t have to like golf to be a part of what we do. You have to only know that we’re going to make it better every year and make it something we can all be proud of in the Hartford region, in Connecticut, and for that matter in the whole world. We just want to be the best that we can be here at the Travelers Championship.”

Worked as sports writer for The Hartford Courant for 38 years before retiring in 2008. His major beats at the paper were golf, the Hartford Whalers, University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball, Yale football, United States and World Figure Skating Championships and ski columnist. He has covered every PGA Tour stop in Connecticut since 1971, along with 30 Masters, 25 U.S. Opens, four PGA Championships, 12 Deutsche Bank Championships, 15 Westchester (N.Y.) Classics and four Ryder Cups. He has won several Golf Writers Association of America writing awards, including a first place for a feature on John Daly, and was elected to the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. He also worked for the Connecticut Whale hockey team for two years when they were renamed by former Hartford Whalers managing general partner Howard Baldwin, who had become the marketing director of the Hartford Wolf Pack, the top affiliate of the New York Rangers.

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