CROMWELL, Conn. – Eight years ago, the longtime PGA Tour stop in the heart of Connecticut was on life support. Already without a sponsor, it was destined to be banished to the Fall Finish, or turned into a Champions Tour event, or even cease to exist altogether.
At the last minute – and that’s almost a literal estimation, because there was so little time to spare – Travelers swooped in to serve as title sponsor and, thanks to some intervening fate, saved the tournament from extinction.
And they all lived happily ever after, right?
Well, yes, but there’s been a lot more to the success story than simply slapping a new name on it and opening the front gates.
This was never Field of Dreams. Just because they built it, didn’t mean the players would come.
From annually offering a chartered flight for competitors traveling from the previous week’s U.S. Open to supplying gifts for their families, the tournament has raised the bar when it comes to player hospitality.
“This one is always on the schedule,” said 2010 champion Bubba Watson. “I don't see that there's a reason for me not to be here. I'm going to be here any time I'm (eligible for) the field.”
There’s a lot of brand loyalty at play here at TPC River Highlands – and in many instances, it’s for good reason. After all, players tend to reward those who offered an early career break.
If you don’t yet know the names Patrick Rodgers, Cameron Wilson, Oliver Goss and Bobby Wyatt, chances are you’ll learn them soon – although truth be told, even casual observers of the amateur golf scene are likely familiar with this foursome.
This week, each of the four will make his professional debut as a sponsor’s exemption at the Travelers Championship, joining a list that dates back to the introductions of major champions David Duval, Justin Leonard and Stewart Cink, and in more recent years has included Kyle Stanley, Morgan Hoffmann and Patrick Cantlay.
“This all goes back to when we started looking at the date after the U.S. Open,” explains tournament director Nathan Grube. “It was like, wait a minute, let’s really start to take advantage of this. I don’t want to say we didn’t have a strategy before that, but when Travelers came on, we looked at everything strategically and exemptions were no different.
Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Travelers, is a ubiquitous presence at other PGA Tour events, not only recruiting, but getting to know the players. He’s fond of saying that the title sponsor loves to invest in the future – which is only logical for an insurance company.
“You just get to know the guys,” Grube continued. “If they can’t play, they can’t play. But we get to know them and they have a cool experience here. We really try to make a big deal of it.
“They do this once, so we want to make sure that they have a good time.”
This week, the four newly minted professionals were each feted with their own pre-tournament news conference and otherwise celebrated for choosing to make their debut at this event.
And so far, the love affair is mutual.
“They do a wonderful job of being nice to young players coming out and making their professional debuts,” said Wyatt, who played for Alabama’s national championship-winning team. “I think everyone wants to play in the Travelers Championship and debut here. It's a dream come true for me. I can't tell you how thrilled I am and thankful for the opportunity.”
“[To] have a chance to start my professional career here, it's kind of another milestone week,” explained Patrick Rodgers, who was the world’s top-ranked amateur before turning pro. “We've been treated so well. They've just gone above and beyond to make me a spoiled player this week and make me feel like I'm just a regular out here on the PGA Tour.”
Those words are exactly what tournament officials mean when they talk about investing in the future.
There’s an excellent chance that of the four players making their pro debuts this week, a few of them – if not all – will become the game’s next stars. And there’s also an excellent chance they’ll return the favor to the event that first gave them a chance. Maybe not every player, maybe not every year, but it will certainly help those prospects.
“They've done everything they can to make me feel welcome,” said Goss, an Australian who played his college golf at Tennessee. “That's just how I feel. I feel part of it here. We had a great time on the charter from Pinehurst to here. That's just a little taste of what it's like being a professional, and it's a really great experience. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Just consider it all part of the tournament’s long-term strategy.