Bubba and Trav­el­ers have grown to­gether

The News-Times - - SPORTS - JEFF JA­COBS

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.

This wasn’t.

“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

$2 mil­lion.

“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.”

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