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Travelers Championship, a benchmark event on the PGA Tour, begins Thursday

The Travelers Championship begins Thursday with first round action at the TPC-River Highlands in Cromwell. The Pro-Am is Wednesday. (Photo courtesy Travelers Championship)

HARTFORD – There are no shortage of people who take shots at criticizing Connecticut, including many people that live here in the Nutmeg State.

But there is a rich history of athletics here. It’s been here for more than a century but it is not all part of the history books. There is plenty for us to enjoy today in Connecticut.

Despite the controversy surrounding the construction of their $71 million stadium in downtown Hartford, the Hartford Yard Goats minor league baseball team have been a tremendous success with multiple sellouts and an energized fan base filling Dunkin’ Donuts Park on a regular basis.

The UConn women’s basketball program with 11 NCAA national championships under Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma is one of the greatest sports programs ever.

There is the Connecticut Sun, our own WNBA team at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Now in their 17th season, the Sun have played in two WNBA finals and are the best team in the league on this day with a 7-1 start. The best women’s basketball players in the world are coming to Connecticut every summer to challenge the Sun.

Next week, we’ll get to enjoy the Travelers Championship at the Tournament Players Club at River Highlands in Cromwell. Fifteen of the top 25 players in the world are scheduled to play at the Travelers including No. 1 Brooks Koepka, No. 6 Franceso Molinari, No. 7 Justin Thomas, No. 9 Patrick Cantlay and No. 9 Bryson DeChambeau.

Three-time tournament winner Bubba Watson, who donated $200,000 his winnings to the tournament last year, is back along with former Masters champion Justin Spieth, whose shot to win the 2017 tournament in a playoff and his the ensuing celebration became a viral sensation, and Phil Mickelson, a former two-time winner here in Cromwell.

“It is such an honor to be a part of this tournament,” Watson said following the 2018 tournament. “They’ve always made me feel like family. Every year they’re making improvements, making the tournament better, growing the charitable donations, doing more for the families, caddies, fans. I can’t say enough about how impressive this tournament is and how much they impact the community by giving back.”

In the last two years, the Travelers Championship has won the Players Choice award, an award voted on exclusively by PGA Tour members and is based on players’ experiences with tournament services, hospitality, player and family amenities, community support, attendance, golf course and other attributes.

Nathan Grube speaks at the recent Gold Key banquet hosted by the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance. The tournament received the President’s Award.

“We’re honored to receive this award and try to think of everything when it comes to the players, because we want them to enjoy their week,” said Andy Bessette, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer at Travelers. “We take great pride in the relationships we build with the players on the PGA Tour, so having them give this to us makes it very special.”

The Travelers Championship goes above and beyond to assist players, caddies and their families, not only during tournament week, but throughout the FedExCup season. One of the major perks for players is a charter flight provided from the U.S. Open, played the week before the Travelers Championship.

“This award is incredibly meaningful to us because it comes directly from the players on the PGA Tour, and we work hard to deliver a world-class experience for them,” said Nathan Grube, Travelers Championship tournament director. “The tremendous support we receive each year from the players and the PGA Tour helps us to generate significant money for charity and deliver an economic boost to our community and state.”

Travelers became the title sponsor of the Travelers Championship in 2007 and has been supporting the event in some capacity since the tournament’s debut as the Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club in 1952. The tournament has generated more than $40 million for charity in its history, including a record $2 million in 2018.

There are those in Connecticut pining for what has changed – the loss to the Hartford Whalers, the changes in collegiate athletics that saw UConn move from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference and the struggles of the UConn football program over the past decade.

But major league sports are still here in Connecticut with the Sun and the Travelers Championship – Connecticut’s largest annual professional sporting event.

“Things have come full circle,” Grube said at the recent Gold Key banquet hosted by the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance where the tournament was being recognized for their contributions to Connecticut. “The PGA said that you are now the benchmark of what a PGA tournament should be. This is a story we have told the world very loudly – what Connecticut can do with a professional sporting event if given the opportunity,” he said.

“You don’t think that NFL owners, major league baseball owners, hockey owners didn’t turn their heads and say, hmmm, that is interesting,” Grube said. “I promise you that this will resonate over the next few years.”

Spieth’s shot from a bunker on the 18th hole on the first hole of a playoff, his celebration with caddy Michael Greller that included the tossing of a bunker rake, his club and a big-time chest bump, coupled with the reaction from the crowd caught the interest of the sporting world and the Tour players.

“The message that was sent with Jordan knocked in that shot and the spotlight was on us and rest of the world looked and that isn’t normal,” Grube said.

Jordan Spieth and his caddy Michael Greller celebrate after his outstanding chip to win the 2017 Travelers Championship. (Graphic courtesy Travelers Championship)

The support here in Cromwell from the tournament and the fans is different.

“Rory (Mcilroy) said he has never had a full gallery sitting there at 6:50 (a.m.) on a Saturday morning watching him play,” Grube said.

Watson praised the tournament for listening to the players on the Tour. “So they started asking every player,” Watson said . “They did everything for the caddies, they did for the families, they did for the kids. They’ve done everything they said they would do and plus, and then when you talk about the driving range, the First Tee facility, the new clubhouse, the golf course revamp, everything, they keep doing it better and better.

“When you see a tournament like that, it develops from a tournament to a bigger tournament, and you can see why we keep voting for it to be the best tournament because of what they’re doing, what they’re doing off the course, what they’re providing for the community, economic growth but also for the charity dollars. It’s a tournament that you want to be at,” Watson said.

Grube grew up in the warmth of San Diego in California. He thought he might be here for a few years when he got his job with the tournament in 2005. He is still here.

“I absolutely fell in love with New England. This is a special, special place. We have something special here. It is amazing to be a part of,” Grube said. “Thank you for letting our team be stewards of Connecticut’s PGA Tour event. We want to make you proud.”

Travelers Championship

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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