CROMWELL, Conn. – Travelers Championship officials like to give the tournament’s defending champion a special gift at the end of Media Day.
On Tuesday, Andy Bessette, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer at Travelers, told Xander Schauffele to look under the chair that he was sitting on while doing a Zoom interview from the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C. Schauffele broke into an immediate smile when he found a Travelers Championship humidor with cigars inside.
“I’m going to have to keep these away from my dad,” Schauffele said with a chuckle.
Bessette and tournament director Nathan Grube might have another surprise when Schauffele arrives in town for Connecticut’s biggest sporting event June 22-25 at TPC River Highlands. Schauffele graduated from San Diego State and virtually everyone in these parts with even a passing interest in college basketball knows whom the University of Connecticut defeated in the national championship game for their fifth title.
“I’m proud with how our guys played and got within five points in the second half, but UConn was just too good,” said Schauffele, who lives in San Diego.
Such thoughtful touches have helped the Travelers Championship improve its status over the years, capped by becoming one of the PGA Tour’s new 17 “designated” tournaments that have minimum $20 million purses and are all but assured of having most of the Top 20 ranked players in the world and the top 20 in the Player Impact Program.
“For 17 years (as title sponsor), we’ve never accepted the status quo,” Bessette said. “When Nathan and I heard there was going to be four more ‘designated’ events after the first 13 were announced, we put our heads together and wondered how we could be one of them. When we went to the Wells Fargo Championship last year, Tiger (Woods) and Rory (McIlroy) told us we had earned it, which was really special.”
Grube said, “We thought we should be at that level, even though we were going up against markets that were three or four times bigger. Now we’re part of a wonderful shiny new tour and optimistic we’ll be ‘designated’ again.”
Woods and McIlroy were the key figures at a players’ meeting where details of “designated” tournaments were discussed. Grube said being a “designated” event has already dramatically increased corporate sponsorships and ticket sales, even in New York and Boston, to go with an enhanced fan zone experience and other course amenities.
“The spotlight is on us, and people really like that,” Grube said. “We already have a record 100 corporate sponsors, which is awesome.”
Bessette also revealed the tournament was adding something McIlroy had requested, a coffee bar on the driving range.
“We’re going to have a ‘Brew and Moo,’ “ a smiling Bessette said of a coffee bar and ice cream stand.
After a 2022 season that included three PGA Tour victories, an Olympic gold medal in Japan and going 3-1 for the victorious U.S. team in the Presidents Cup, Schauffele is winless this year but has had four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts that has enabled him to be No. 5 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
“Winning the gold medal was awesome and gets better as time goes on,” said Schauffele, who birdied the final hole at TPC River Highlands for a two-stroke victory over J.T. Poston and Sahith Theegala, who double-bogeyed No. 18. “The four wins were the result of an extra dose of patience. I wanted to be aware of things, and I did a good job. Things can always change, but you have to stay aware of the moment. TPC gives you plenty of opportunities for birdies, so that adds to the excitement. But danger looms, too, especially on the back nine with all of the water and out of bounds.”
Schauffele has already played in several “designated” events, which he said are definitely different from regular Tour tournaments.
“It’s the best part of sports for me,” Schauffele said. “It almost feels like we’re at the playoffs every time we’re at these elevated events, and there’s a real feeling of excitement. I’ve been really enjoying watching playoff sports in basketball and hockey. It’s not our playoffs just yet, but it feels like it. Everybody’s showing up, ready to go, the best players in the world showing up every week. The competition is just thriving in these spots, everyone wants to play very well.
“This is the year to grind, and next year should be more fluid. It’s a mixed feeling, to be transparent with it. Some guys are really happy with it, some guys not as happy, there’s less opportunity. If anything holds true, I’d say the PGA has done a good job of being transparent with us about the changes, and the guys I’ve talked to who aren’t super happy, I’ve sort of let them know that we are trying to get the best package possible moving forward and keep the Tour together. If things aren’t right, don’t feel right, the competition isn’t right, the Tour is willing to change and make it better. The Tour is ever evolving, making sure everyone’s taken care of.”
Other marquee players who have committed to the tournament include No. 2 Scottie Scheffler, No. 3 McIlroy, No. 4 Patrick Cantlay, No. 7 Max Homa, No. 11 Tony Finau, No. 14 Collin Morikawa, No. 15 Justin Thomas, No. 16 Cameron Young, the 2022 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, and No. 22 Keegan Bradley, a Vermont native. Woods, still the player who moves the needle the most despite limited play due to injuries, had a conversation last fall with Bessette, who said he will never give up getting him one of these years. Several top players are no longer on the PGA Tour because they were suspended for defecting to LIV Golf including three-time champion Bubba Watson.
The tournament will have a record purse ($20 million) and first prize ($3.6 million), with Travelers and the PGA Tour splitting the $12 million increase in prize money. Travelers has a contract with the PGA Tour through 2030, and Bessette and Grube are planning ahead in search of permanent elevated status that would surpass record charity benefits of $2.5 million last year. About an hour after interviews had been completed, they headed for Bradley International Airport for a flight to Charlotte to visit this week’s Wells Fargo Championship, another “elevated” tournament.
“They’re not going to be rotating, I can tell you that,” said Bessette, the only upper management personnel of a title sponsor on the PGA Tour to help recruit players. “And there will be a small number of designated events going forward. We’re in deep conversations with the Tour right now, and it will probably come out when they announce the 2024 season, probably in July. It’s important to us to be designated beyond 2023, very important. We’ll see how that all ends up, but I feel pretty good. We’ve been auditioning for this for 16 years.”
It was 47 days until the 2023 Travelers Championship, but Bessette was keeping his pledge to never accept the status quo well into the future.
“This is no small moment in our history,” Grube said. “The spotlight is on us, and when the spotlight is on us, people really, really like what they see. Sending that message to the world from on this stage is unbelievable.”
On the web: TravelersChampionship.com
Photos: Bruce Berlet