CROMWELL, Conn – For more than half a century, the PGA Tour’s annual stop in Connecticut had one of the worst practice facilities at Wethersfield Country Club and then TPC Connecticut/TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.
All that changed in 2008, when a $4.5 million, 23-acre state-of-the-art facility, one of the largest on the PGA Tour, opened north of TPC River Highlands and adjacent to The First Tee of Connecticut, a youth development organization that uses golf to teach character and the only complex in the world at the time to have a practice facility, four-hole mini-course and learning center in the same location.
In 2017, a $3.5 million course enhancement project was completed to improve the infrastructure and playability of the layout, a major plus for helping to attract players to the Travelers Championship. The primary focus of the project was the renovation and repositioning of the bunkers, while several greens and tee boxes were also modified and drainage throughout the course was supplemented and enhanced. Most of the changes were accomplished during the off-season to minimize disruption of play, original architect Bobby Weed was consulted and the work done by renowned golf construction company McDonald and Sons, Inc., which had been involved with renovation projects at a number of high-profile clubs and tournament venues throughout the country.
But there was still one glaring shortcoming for the home of the biggest sporting event in Connecticut: an antiquated clubhouse that dated to the early days of Edgewood Golf Course in the 1930s and might have been the worst on the PGA Tour and inferior to even many private country clubs. Starting in 2014, an annex was added to the southeast side of the clubhouse to accommodate players and their families during the Travelers Championship, but the facility was still short of PGA Tour standards.
No longer. Within days of Bubba Watson winning his third Travelers Championship title and then donating $200,000 of his $1,260,000 winnings to give the tournament a record $2 million for charity in a single year, the razing of the 10,000-square-foot clubhouse began. A $17-plus million state-of-the-art facility four times the size of the original clubhouse is on schedule to be finished in late spring and in time for the Travelers Championship on June 20-23.
“We’d talked about a new clubhouse for years, but true planning was decided in 2016,” said David Corrado, who is in his fifth year as TPC River Highlands general manager after being the head pro at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass., then home of the PGA Tour’s Deutsche Bank Championship. “We had outgrown the building and wanted to continue to elevate the amenities of the club and the tournament. This is the last leg of the stool and takes things to a new level. It will provide us the opportunity to do so much more for the tournament, our members, their families and our community in the years to come.”
As with the new practice facility and course enhancements, the PGA Tour and Travelers are sharing the cost.
“It’s definitely a partnership,” Corrado said.
Tournament and Travelers officials again appreciate the arrangement that benefits so many.
“It’s exciting to see the progress that has been made since the end of the 2018 Travelers Championship,” tournament director Nathan Grube said. “It really will be a game-changer for us, allowing the tournament to offer fans and players a new and different experience. I think anyone who has come to the Travelers Championship and knows what was in that spot before is going to be really impressed with what will be there now.”
Travelers Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Bessette said, “We want every aspect of the Travelers Championship to be world-class, and this new clubhouse will elevate the tournament even more. From hosting events during tournament week to making merchandise available to fans in the pro shop to giving the PGA Tour players a big locker room with lots of amenities, it will certainly be a multi-purpose venue that everyone will enjoy. We can’t wait to see the finished product.”
The new clubhouse will be two stories high on the site of the former clubhouse and stretch where the old practice green and chipping area were out toward the area where the “Fan Zone” is located during the tournament. The reception area will have a fireplace with a comfortable sitting area, and there will be a larger restaurant area with a bar and an event hall that can seat as many as 350 people for large activities such as corporate affairs, weddings, banquets and upstairs meeting space.
There will be a patio off the lower level and a covered porch off the upper level that can be reached from the event hall off the back of the clubhouse. The golf shop will increase to approximately 1,500 square feet, and there will be 300 lockers in the men’s and women’s lounges but parking will be basically unchanged.
Corrado and his 16-person off-season staff are working out of a temporary building near The First Tee of Connecticut until the new clubhouse is finished. The staff will increase to approximately 150, including golf course maintenance, when the new clubhouse opens.
Despite a rainy fall, the project has remained on schedule, and work has continued on the interior and exterior of the building thanks to a lack of snow. Bartlett, Brainard Eacott Inc. of Bloomfield is the general contractor for the project, and the architects are Chapman Coyle Chapman of Marietta, Ga.
The shortage of snow hasn’t been beneficial for the course, but there has been a silver lining.
“We’d obviously prefer an eight-inch snow cover to protect the grass, but the good news is that it hasn’t been that cold or windy,” Corrado said.
The latest major improvement to River Highlands could help the tournament continue its streak of major awards from the PGA Tour. For the second consecutive year, the 2018 tournament was honored with the “Player’s Choice” Award during the PGA Tour’s Tournament Meetings. That came a year after the event earned a record four awards, including “Tournament of the Year” for the first time.
“The tournament committee should be extremely proud of its hard work and innovation in making the tournament the best among its peers on Tour,” PGA Tour Chief Tournaments and Competitions Officer Andy Pazdar said in a statement when the newest award was announced.”
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.
“We’re honored to receive this award and try to think of everything when it comes to the players because we want them to enjoy their week,” said Bessette, one of the few top officials from a title sponsor to help recruit players at other tournament sites. “We take great pride in the relationships we build with the players on the PGA Tour, so having them give this to us makes it very special.”
The Travelers Championship goes above and beyond to assist players, caddies and their families, not only during tournament week, but throughout the FedEx Cup season. One of the major perks for players is a charter flight provided from the U.S. Open, played the week before the Travelers Championship.
“This award is incredibly meaningful to us because it comes directly from the players, and we work hard to deliver a world-class experience for them,” Grube said. “The tremendous support we receive each year from the players and the PGA Tour helps us to generate significant money for charity and deliver an economic boost to our community and state.”
Last year’s tournament received special support from the players that led to the best field since Travelers became the title sponsor in 2007. It included Watson, defending champion Jordan Spieth, eventual Player of the Year Brooks Koepka, who won the U.S. Open for the second straight year and the PGA Championship, Masters titlist Patrick Reed, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Zach Johnson, Tony Finau, Louis Oosthuizen, Paul Casey, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, former Travelers titlists Stewart Cink, Marc Leishman, Kevin Streelman and Fairfield native J.J. Henry, the only Connecticut player to win the event; and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, who shot a PGA Tour-record, 12-under-par 58 in the final round in 2016.
Travelers has been supporting the tournament in some capacity since its debut in 1952 as the Insurance Open at Wethersfield Country Club. The event has generated more than $40 million for charity, including the record $2 million for more than 150 local charities that included the $200,000 contribution from Watson, who joined World Golf Hall of Famer Billy Casper (four) as the only players to win the event more than twice.
Charity representatives joined officials from Travelers and the tournament at The Society Room of Hartford for the annual Travelers Championship Charity Celebration, where funds were distributed to each organization.
“This is always a special day because it signifies the hard work everyone puts into the tournament,” Grube said. “Through the support we receive from volunteers, fans, players and businesses, we’re able to help charitable groups across the region make the community a better place.”
The total amount generated for charity is more than $16.7 million since Travelers became title sponsor, and at least 750 charities have benefited over that time.
“Reaching the $2 million mark is an important milestone, and it will have such a meaningful impact on so many local organizations,” Bessette said. “Bubba’s generosity mirrors our charity-first approach and follows a similar sentiment that runs through the PGA Tour and many of its players.”
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded by the late actor Paul Newman, was the primary beneficiary of last year’s tournament, with three campers serving as honorary co-chairs. Watson directed his $200,000 donation to the Camp, which is naming the trading post at the Travelers Mini Golf Course on its campus in Ashford as the “Bubba Watson’s Trading Post” in recognition of the 12-time PGA Tour winner.
In addition to receiving the “Players Choice” award and being named “Tournament of the Year” in 2017, the Travelers Championship was selected “Most Fan Friendly Event” and “Best Tournament Sales.” The tournament has now earned 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, when it hosted the Bruce Edwards Foundation Dinner in memory of the Wethersfield native who caddied for 30 years on the PGA Tour, mostly for Hall of Famer Tom Watson, before he died of ALS.)
The tournament donates 100 percent of its net proceeds to charity, and preparation is well underway for this year’s $7.2 million championship. Travelers, a leading provider of property and casualty insurance for home, auto and business, is the Official Property Casualty Insurance Provider of the PGA Tour and has been doing business in the Hartford community for more than 160 years.
For more information on the tournament, visit www.TravelersChampionship.com.