CROMWELL, Conn. – As Jordan Spieth was winding down his teleconference call with the local media on Travelers Championship Media Day, I was happy to add a little to his already unforgettable victory at TPC River Highlands 11 months ago.
“Hey, Boomer (Chris Berman, ESPN legend and longtime tournament supporter), ask Jordan if he knows if he’s the only player in PGA Tour history to win a tournament on a bunker shot in a playoff,” I asked.
“You know that by now, right?” said Berman, the moderator for Spieth’s chat with the Fourth Estate.
After a momentary pause, Spieth said, “I don’t, no.”
Yes, Spieth’s 61-foot bunker shot for birdie on the first playoff hole to beat close friend Daniel Berger was indeed historic and made him only third player to end a PGA Tour event from the sand. The others are Bob Tway (1986 PGA Championship) and David Frost (1990 USF&G Classic), and the victim each time was none other than World Golf Hall of Fame member and 1995 Greater Hartford Open winner Greg Norman.
After Spieth’s shot rolled into the cup like a putt, he and caddie Michael Geller set a PGA Tour record for most emphatic club toss/rake toss/hip check-chest bump. Nearly a year later, Spieth still has vivid memories of the PGA Tour’s Shot of the Year in 2017 that helped the Travelers Championship earn the prestigious Tournament of the Year Award for the first time.
“The sound of the crowd was so loud that I could feel the earth move,” Spieth said of his shot in the terrific amphitheater surrounding the 18th green that dramatically ended his tournament debut. “I don’t even know if I’ve ever even heard something like that, including a game-winning shot in a NBA arena, and that’s about as loud as it gets. I felt the ground shake. I’ve watched the shot a thousand times. I get chills every time I see it.”
Spieth also has thoroughly enjoyed replays of tossing his wedge with his left hand, jumping out of the bunker and making a mighty leap into the chest of Greller, who had tossed a rake before meeting his employer in midair
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have another moment like that in my golfing career,” said Spieth, who spoke via a video feed from The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. “In a span of 15 seconds, it was as cool as anything I’ve ever experienced. I remember right after I struck it, hopping up, just in time to see it go in and then I don’t remember anything. I just totally blacked out.”
While Spieth thought his club toss was “perfectly timed” with Greller’s rake toss, the leaping chest bump wasn’t nearly as finely choreographed as the two kind of went in sideways.
“I was pretty impressed (Greller) didn’t fall back,” Spieth said. “I went into him with quite a bit of force, but he’s a stable dude. I think he ended up taking the rake, so I apologize for that. You guys might need to replace that rake on 18. I think it’s at his house.”
And the sand wedge?
“It’s not in my bag anymore,” said Spieth, who will be married in November. “I have to change my 60-degree. I hit it so often, I have to change it quite a bit. But I know exactly where it is. It’s next to the trophy in my house.”
A perfect place for it.
Spieth, whose 11 PGA Tour titles includes three of the four majors, also has special feelings about becoming only the fourth player to win the tournament in his debut.
“It’s on a different level than most of the PGA Tour events,” Spieth said. “The fans are absolutely incredible, and we are treated like kings. The difference-maker is the people that come out. You have a lot of vantage points, man-made amphitheaters, especially the last four holes that can gather so many people who can be there with you. It’s unique in that sense, it allows for these really exciting roars where you can take a 62 and turn it into a 58.
“Last year I was striking the ball incredibly well in. It was a matter of around the greens getting back to where I wanted to be. I really, really kind of fell in love with the back nine. … My only regret is I didn’t start playing the Travelers sooner.”
While Spieth was the featured attraction on Media Day, the emotional leader was 16-year-old Tyler Backus of Fairfield, who has glycogen storage disease and is one of thousands of youngsters helped by The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which was founded by the late Paul Newman in Ashford in 1986 and is the chief beneficiary of the tournament.
Backus, who was introduced by Hole in the Wall Gang Camp CEO Jimmy Canton, said his blood sugar must be monitored 24 hours a day, and he has to be fed through a port in his belly every three hours. His family sets multiple alarms for 11 p.m., 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. so no feeding is missed or he will go into seizure – or worse.
Backus needs injections to boost his immune system to combat illness every day. He wasn’t able to go on vacation or visit his grandparents or a friend’s house until The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp changed his life at 13.
“The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp meant I could do something normal in my world that usually revolves around chronic illness and adversity,” Tyler said. “I never thought I could go overnight somewhere and feel comfortable in my own skin.”
Backus was also happy to talk about going ziplining, fishing, shooting arrows and swimming.
“Not one other kid stared, whispered or even cared what was going on with me medically and it felt great,” Tyler said. “I’m also small for my age, and for the first time I didn’t get a questioning look when I told people how old I was. The people at the Camp were very interested in who I was and didn’t care about anything on the outside.
“I felt unstoppable, like I could take on the world.”
Backus also talked about making a new friend at the Moose Lodge, where the camp’s kids sleep if they need medical care throughout the night. Tyler and his friend talked about their lives, and he came to realize they had something in common. He also was fed through a port in his stomach.
Backus said his favorite thing about the Travelers Championship has been playing mini-golf in the Fan Zone between the first and 18thholes and watching with the thousands of fans in the amphitheater around the 18th green.
When Backus finished saying his remarkably moving and rewarding words, he received a standing ovation as a few tears were shed, including those of tournament director Nathan Grube.
“Bravest person in the room,” Grube said, his voice choking.
But as Andy Bessette, Travelers executive vice president and chief administrative officer, reminded everyone, all these emotional moments didn’t seem possible before Travelers became the title sponsor.
“This tournament was dead,” Bessette said.
It was off the PGA Tour schedule and headed for the LPGA or Champions Tour until Travelers stepped in.
“It wasn’t going to become what happened to the Whalers,” Bessette said.
“And it certainly hasn’t. A year ago, the tournament drew 290,000 fans and raised a record $1.72 million for 165 charities, increasing the charity contributions to more than $15 million since Travelers became title sponsor in 2007. In December, it selected “Tournament of the Year,” “Most Fan-Friendly Event,” “Best Sales” and the “Players Choice,” as picked by the PGA Tour players based on services, hospitality, family amenities, community support and attendance.
That will be a mighty tough act to follow, but the $7 million event has a field that is already considered the best since Travelers became title sponsor. The marquee names are the last three major championship winners Spieth (British Open), No. 2 Justin Thomas (PGA Championship) and No. 10 Patrick Reed (Masters), former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, two-time Travelers and Masters winner Bubba Watson, past major champions Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk, who shot a PGA Tour record 58 in the final round of the 2016 Travelers and will be U.S. Ryder Cup captain in France this year after being a team member nine times, No. 12 Paul Casey, who lost a playoff to Watson in 2015, Charley Hoffman and Bryson DeChambeau.
“The reason we get the fields that we get is because of the relationships that we’ve been able to build over the years,” Grube said, “and the man driving that to help make that happen is Andy Bessette. Andy and I have been working together for the last 12 years, and I would say the secret sauce of this whole ingredient is the fact that we have a title sponsor who is as engaged as any title I’ve ever met in my life.”
Bessette said he and Grube work overtime because the status quo isn’t good enough.
“I think the exciting thing about golf these days is that when you see the Jordans, the (Dustin Johnsons), the Rorys, the (Rickie Fowlers), they’re all cheering each other on,” Bessette said. “That’s what sports and golf should be about. I think we should celebrate that for many years to come with the Travelers Championship, too.“
“You’ve heard Nathan and I talk about this, that we try to make this a bigger and better event every year. It’s going to be tough to match Jordan Spieth’s finish last year, and everybody says, ‘What are you going to do to make that better, to do it again, to make it unforgettable?’
“It’s the quality of the field. We work really hard at having a quality field, and we are going to continue to do that for all of our fans and for the State of Connecticut and our communities and charities. Since we became the title sponsor, we have really set a new standard for Connecticut’s PGA Tour event, and the charities that benefit are so important. And what we do for the community is so good, and it supports so many businesses around, as well.”
Perhaps fittingly for the theme of the day, the Travelers Championship’s special personal champion’s gift was a $2,500 contribution to the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation to help support educational opportunities for kids with special needs. Spieth’s 25th birthday will be July 27, and his sister, Ellie, is an inspiration who was born with a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum with a serious developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact.
“The $2,500 has a double meaning,” Bessette said.
“Thanks, Andy,” Spieth said. “That’s too kind of y’all. Appreciate that.”
The day after the June 21-24 Travelers Championship ends, construction of a new 32,000-square-foot clubhouse will begin and is expected to be ready for the 2019 event. It will be on the current site and stretched where the old practice green is and out toward the bank in front of the temporary annex to the clubhouse. This major improvement comes after $4.5 million was spent on a new 23-acre state-of-the-art practice facility that opened in 2008, and $3.5 million spent on course renovations three years ago.
For more information on the tournament, visit www.TravelersChampionship.com.