Bubba and Travelers have grown together
CROMWELL — As Emma Thistlewaite walked over to Bubba Watson and gave the defending champion a big hug, folks at the
2019 Travelers Media Day couldn’t help but give her a standing ovation. Emma had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, at age 11 in
2015. She bravely endured chemo, had her left humerus replaced with a metal prosthesis, and in those dark days would come to accept that gymnastics and cheerleading needed to be sacrificed.
Emma talked about the wonders of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and how she attended in a wheelchair the first year, but in the two years since has been able to enjoy everything from archery to the zipline. And when Emma Thistlewaite of New Hartford stopped talking and started hugging, beyond the tears welling in folks’ eyes, there was this undeniable sense that the Travelers Championship had reached a confluence of success.
The money, the time, the unbending effort Travelers has poured into building the state’s premier sporting event since 2007 led to $2 million raised for 150 charities last year, and in turn has attracted another terrific field for the 2019 PGA Tour event in June at TPC River Highlands.
Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Jason Day, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau, Tommy Fleetwood and more have committed to play the week after the U.S Open takes place on the West Coast. Ditto two-time winner Phil Mickelson, who we thought may never see Cromwell again. Yes, the crowds are going to be huge.
“The USGA is now considering moving the U.S. Open from the week before the Travelers Championship,” tournament director Nathan Grube said. That was a joke.
“It’s has been our motto from Day One,” Travelers executive vice president and chief administrative officer Andy Bessette said. “The day you accept the status quo is the day you start going backward.”
What made the hug so special as Travelers pushes forward is that Watson, the three-time Travelers champ and the emotional core of the tournament, had given $200,000 from his $1.26 million winner’s check to Hole in the Wall in June. On the spot. Bubba heard the announcement Trav
elers had raised $1.8 million for charity, and the man who makes no excuses about thinking with his heart walked straight to Bessette and Travelers CEO Alan Schnitzer after the trophy presentation. With rain pelting the interview tent, he told them of his donation to Hole in the Wall, the event’s primary beneficiary. Away from the microphones. Away from the spotlight. No boast. No drama. Just wanted to make it an even
“The heart is my biggest motivation,” Watson said. “When something hits me, I run with it and ask for forgiveness from my wife afterward.
“I’m part of Travelers now and this community. I wanted to show my love and support.”
Bubba grew with Travelers. Travelers grew with Bubba. His victory in 2010 was his first on tour and it came in the final days of his dad’s life. He has been to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford. He has danced there. The kids there have sung to him. The bond between Travelers and Bubba is a special one, a tight one. A tournament that had been lost needed to be found with such bonds. The tournament of Palmer and Casper and Snead and Norman and Mickelson dating to
1952 was lost 12 years ago. “I hear people say they were going to cancel it,” Bessette said. “No, the PGA Tour did cancel it. It was off the schedule and gone.”
Travelers saved it. They saved it by building a terrific
practice range. They saved it by revamping the course. They are saving it with the opening of a 40,000-square-foot clubhouse this year. More than anything, Travelers saved the tournament by asking questions of the people who matter most.
“They asked me, they asked all the players what they want,” Watson said. “They do everything for the caddies, the families, the kids. They’ve done everything they said they would, plus. Everything about the tournament is growing. The players see that. They hear buzz. They know the buzz. And it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.
“Best tournament on tour and that’s why we keep voting it that way.”
Travelers won the “Players Choice” award, voted by PGA Tour membe-5
rs, in 2017. The award is given for tournament services, hospitality, player and family amenities, community support, attendance, golf course. Travelers won again in 2018.
“Our goal has always been to make this the best stop on the PGA Tour,” Bessette said.
“And never stop trying to improve each year,” Grube said.
When Travelers took over, the week after the U.S. Open was no plum date.
“There was an initial trepidation,” Grube said. “To a person everybody was nervous. It took us a couple of years to figure out what the personality of our event would be. We came to the conclusion the date is not going to make the tournament. The tournament will make the date.
“In an interview like five
years ago, I was asked, ‘How did you get so lucky with that date?’ I nearly fell out of my chair.”
Travelers did everything right, right down to a charter from the U.S. Open for players, their families and caddies. But what about the West Coast? Oh, that’s going to be rough.
“Again in ’07, I would have assumed a drop,” Grube said. “This is our fifth one on the West Coast and statistically it hasn’t mattered nearly as much as I thought. I would have lost that bet. These guys are playing all over the world now, they’re looking for good events.”
The 2019 U.S. Open is at Pebble Beach and, yes, Travelers has one of its best fields in its history. This year, the PGA Tour also juggled the schedule, putting the PGA Championship this week at Bethpage.
“We are a known entity, so the schedule (switches) actually worked to our benefit,” Grube said. “Guys committed to us earlier and it helped our field early.”
Success arrived in stages. The new practice facilities in 2008 showed the players Travelers was invested in them. The attention with Bubba’s breakthrough win in 2010 certainly helped. So did a chat Bessette and Grube had with Rory McIlroy at the 2015 Players Championship. He said he had heard great things about Travelers and wanted to put it on his calendar.
“It wasn’t us talking about the event,” Grube said. “Now it was the players. Rory came in 2017 and that’s when Jordan Spieth’s (bunker) shot put a great spotlight on things we already felt good about.”
Yes, Travelers is a on a roll.
Watson jokes that coming to Travelers is easy because he misses the cut so often (five of past seven years) at the U.S. Open. And then he tells us a poignant story.
In 2010, only a handful of people knew Bubba’s dad, Gerry, back home in Florida was in his final days with throat cancer. Suddenly, golf was a game.
“We were driving past a big sign for the waterpark (Brownstone in Portland),” Watson said. “My wife said ‘You need to go practice,’ and I said, ‘Who cares?’ Bubba went to the range when Bessette approached him and said he needed to win this week. Bubba answered he needs to win any week. They were talking about the waterpark when Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin approached and asked Bubba if he wanted to play the back nine. Bubba said no, he was going to the waterpark. Although it sounded like he’d been practicing for hours, he had only hit a few balls. And here he was so coveting a captain’s pick for the 2010 Ryder Cup.
Well, fate would have it that Bubba beat Pavin in a playoff to win Travelers, dissolve in tears and go on to make the Ryder Cup.
“The only event my dad ever saw me win was Travelers,” said Watson, who would go on to twice win the Masters. “The last event he ever saw me play was the Ryder Cup from his hospital bed. The Travelers means so much to my family.”