HARTFORD, Conn. – Ever since the Travelers Championship was saddled with the week after the U.S. Open, people have wondered how tournament officials could continue to draw a quality field.
Tournament director Nathan Grube says you can start with Andy Bessette, the executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Travelers and the only major title sponsor official to recruit players along the PGA Tour trail.
“Telling Andy Bessette that he can’t do something is not a good idea,” Grube said on a virtual press conference Monday announcing Travelers’ title sponsorship extension to 2030. “When we were told we were the week after the U.S. Open, Andy said we’re just going to run harder and try harder.”
When asked about being the only major executive to travel the PGA Tour, Bessette smiled and quipped, “It’s good in a way to be the only one out there, but I wish I had someone to talk to.”
Maybe someone will join Bessette by the end of the new agreement, which is a six-year extension of a 10-year contract signed in 2014. Travelers saved the tournament after Buick left as title sponsor in 2006 after a three-year run. The event has been a Connecticut staple since it began in 1952 as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club.
“The date doesn’t make the tournament, the tournament makes the date,” Grube said. “The player who wins in 2030 may be someone who wasn’t even born when we became title sponsor (in 2007),”
Connecticut’s biggest sporting event at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell has raised more than $44 million for charity since the event began in 1952 at Wethersfield Country Club, including more than $20 for more than 800 nonprofits since Travelers became title sponsor and continually gets strong fields that compete before among the largest crowds on the PGA Tour. Travelers has been a sponsor since the tournament’s inception, and the new agreement with makes Travelers the longest-running title sponsor in the event’s history. As part of the extension, the company will remain the Official Property Casualty provider of the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions and Korn Ferry Tour.
The tournament has been able to sustain its significance in the region thanks to the dedication of Travelers, its supporting sponsors and an 11-person staff headed by Grube. Since Day One, Bessette’s mantra has been “never accept the status quo,” and steady improvement includes getting input from players, caddies and others associated with the PGA Tour.
“We’re do everything we can to make things better,” Bessette said. “We try to be as good a friend as we can to everyone year-round and want to know what we can do to make life as comfortable as it can be during the tournament. I’ll walk down the street in Hartford, and 15 years later, someone will stop and say, ‘Thank you for saving the Travelers Championship.’ That’s the pride in the community, charitable giving, the community’s excitement over this. These are all the reasons we keep doing this.”
Bessette, Grube & Co. also continue friendships outside of tournament week, and a special touch is sending a note and a blue or pink onesie when a player’s wife has a baby.
“It has been a fun trip so far, but away we go into the future,” Grube said. “The consistency of our vision, leadership and sponsors have led to the incredible economic and charitable impact on the community. We have a legacy of what we’re doing and hope the best is yet to come.”
The Travelers Championship is part of the PGA Tour that gives more to charity than all other major sports combined. Other sports have sent officials to see what Travelers officials are doing to be so successful, including raising $1.6 million last year when no fans were allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There also were no pro-ams, corporate tents or concessions, though pro-ams will return this year.
“Last year was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen, and I don’t want to be depressed two years in a row,” Bessette said. “While it was weird to have no fans, safety was our main concern, especially being the third event back (after the PGA Tour’s three-month sabbatical). The most powerful aspect is we pulled it off in the throes of a pandemic and that we could raise $1.6 million for charity thanks to the phenomenal help of our sponsors. We take a lot of pride in that.”
Travelers put up its full title sponsorship of $12 million, and most sponsors also didn’t want refunds because it was “the right thing to do.”
“We did what we did because of what the tournament means to the community,” Bessette said. “Being the third event after the restart of play, it was important to make everything as good as possible.”
It’s a major reason that the tournament drew seven of the Top-10 players in the world and is on the way to possibly matching or surpassing that with early commitments from defending champion and No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, who will defend his Masters title next week, No. 5 Bryson DeChambeau, No. 7 Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson, who will try to match Hall of Famer Billy Casper’s record for wins (four).
“The Travelers Championship has established itself as a premier PGA Tour event thanks to the inspirational leadership provided by Travelers, the dedication of thousands of volunteers and the passionate fans who watch or attend every year,” said PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford who was on the virtual call. “Connecticut and the PGA Tour are fortunate to have a company like Travelers that helps deliver an outstanding experience every year for our players, for golf fans and for local nonprofits. We are extremely excited about the future of the Travelers Championship.”
This year’s event is June 24-27, and officials expect fans to be able to attend, though how many will be determined. It should be more than the 38 people who were standing around the 18th green as Johnson finished off his first of four wins last year on the way to be chosen PGA Tour Player of the Year and winning the FedExCup title for the first time. There also will be more media access than the handful of press allowed on the premises in 2020.
“It’s always safety first,” Grube said, “but we feel very good that we’ll have fans, though the environment changes all the time. We’re working on the numbers with the PGA Tour, but players are saying, ‘I can’t wait to be back playing in front of your fans.’ ”
An enthusiastic Bessette then chimed in with the tournament’s new battle cry: “We want fans. We want fans.”
“We’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing because we want fans back,” Bessette said. “I want somebody to go scream and yell with me rather than just me. Nathan and I were out there saying, ‘Yeah, this is really cool, but we’re just here by ourselves. There’s a pretty good chance people are going to have to wear masks, but that’s a small price to pay to be able to be back out and watch the event and just be safe.”
Alan Schnitzer, chairman and CEO at Travelers, was also on the virtual call and pointed to community relations as a major part of the company’s commitment, including providing half of the 4,000 volunteers needed to run the event.
“So many historic and exciting moments in golf have happened at the Travelers Championship over the years, but it’s the amazing moments that are made off the course that capture the real value of our hometown tournament,” Schnitzer said. “As a company rooted in taking care of its customers and communities, the charitable mission of the Travelers Championship reflects who we are as an organization. This tournament is important to so many people across the region – both as an economic driver for the state and as a funding source for hundreds of charities – and we are proud to continue its legacy for years to come.”
The tournament’s legacy includes receiving 15 “Best of” awards from the PGA Tour, including Tournament of the Year (2017), Players Choice (2017 and 2018) and Most Friendly (2010, 2012 and 2017). Travelers’ presence also has led to many significant enhancements to TPC River Highlands, including a 23-acre practice facility, a multi-million-dollar course improvement project and a 40-square-foot clubhouse that opened before the 2019 tournament. The purse also has increased by $200,000 annually for six consecutive years, reaching $7.4 million in 2021.
“The event may be branded with our company name, but this is really Connecticut’s tournament,” Bessette said. “Together, we have made it one of the best stops on the PGA Tour for players and fans. It’s the ethics of what we care about, so that’s why it’s so important to make things as good as possible because the PGA Tour is so different from every other sport.
“It also gives us brand recognition with the (television) broadcast going to more than 200 countries. It has been a phenomenal and unbelievable experience for all of us, and we look forward to the future.”
The date for ticket sales will be announced. In February, Travelers announced it would match any donations made up to $1 million to help The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, one of event’s primary charity beneficiaries that sustained major damage from a fire. The first two rounds, as well as early coverage the final two rounds, will be broadcast on Golf Channel. The final two rounds will be live on CBS.