CROMWELL, Conn. — How has the small-town Travelers Championship become one of the PGA Tour's marquee tournaments, despite being right after the U.S. Open?
It started with a turtle race.
In 1951, the Greater Hartford Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) needed a way to raise money. So it ran a "Turtle Derby" at Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford. The idea stemmed from a successful turtle race fundraiser for the Jaycees in Evansville, Indiana. In Hartford, however, things didn't turn out the same.
The racing turtles were lost while being shipped from Louisiana, and the Jaycees had to dip into a local pond to find replacement creatures. Despite the last-ditch effort to salvage the fundraiser, it didn't raise sufficient funds. So the Jaycees' next endeavor was to write a letter to the PGA of America asking to host a golf tournament.
Lo and behold, a year later, the Insurance City Open was born on Aug. 29 at Wethersfield Country Club. Ted Kroll won and took home $2,400 from a $15,000 purse. The total attendance was 20,000.
Behind an abundance of corporate sponsors and local government support, the tournament has since run annually for the past 70 years, garnering a unique history, collecting millions of dollars for charity and becoming a signature weekend in the state — and on the Tour schedule.
"I remember Rory [McIlroy] talking about this, when he came to play or for the first time, he's like, 'Man, these fans are just so appreciative, and so into this, and so thankful, and like, so gracious, and they're showing up at 6:50 in the morning. I mean, you just don't get that everywhere,'" Nathan Grube, who's been the Travelers Championship's tournament director since 2005, told GolfChannel.com.
In 1967, the tournament was renamed the Greater Hartford Open, its best-known moniker, as tournament organizers wanted to expand its sponsors beyond Hartford insurance companies.
Entertainment legend Sammy Davis Jr. attached his name to the tournament from 1973-88, attracting a slew of celebrities, such as Michael Jordan, Sandy Koufax, Lawrence Taylor, Wayne Gretzky and President Gerald R. Ford, for the pro-am. It also once attracted the largest crowd of any Tour event, though now, it's second annually to the WM Phoenix Open.
"It's really cool for the city of Hartford to — seems like everybody in the whole town is out here on [hole] 18 and it's an incredible experience," 2021 champion Harris English said.
In 1984, as the event continued to increase its stature, it moved to its current venue of TPC River Highlands (then called TPC of Connecticut) in Cromwell, a town that currently has a population of about 14,000 and spans only 13 square miles. The new site came with increased parking space, corporate skyboxes and a more suitable Tour course.
Canon became the tournament's title sponsor in 1985. But in 2002, the company announced it was ending its run with the event because of a “change in strategy."
Suddenly, after 50 straight years, the tournament's future was in jeopardy, struggling to find a new sponsor.
"We’re racing the clock, and if we’re not in a significantly better place in three weeks, I think we’re going to have to tell people we’re off the Tour in 2003,” Roger Gelfenbien, who was chairman of the tournament's title sponsor advisory group, told the Hartford Courant in October 2002.
With a title sponsor unlikely to come in time for the 2003 event, the board of directors transitioned to a “bridge plan,” which was to raise enough money by Nov. 18 to stay on the Tour calendar. In just a month, the event was saved with $3.75 million in contributions from 32 benefactors, and the tournament proceeded in '03 without a title sponsor.
Buick took over in 2004, but for only three years. Grube wasn't even a year into his stint as director when Buick pulled its sponsorship. After the '06 edition, there were five months when the tournament ceased to exist and the event's team was figuring out what its new iteration could be.
"It wasn't a time when we're like, 'Man, what's going to happen?' We literally started talking to the Champions Tour, started talking to the LPGA Tour, because we no longer had a date on the PGA Tour schedule for 2007," Grube said.
Then in April 2006, 84 Lumber dissolved its contract with the Pennsylvania Classic and all of a sudden there was an open spot on the Tour calendar.
"The PGA Tour and our team got together and [Travelers] said, 'You know what? We want to bring this thing back now that there's a date,'" Grube said. "And then in April '06, put the contract together with Travelers. (Travelers executive vice president) Andy Bessette spearheaded that contract on the Travelers' side. And then we announced in April, like, 'Hey, look, Buick isn't the last year of PGA Tour in Connecticut.'"
Even though the tournament was back on Tour, there was a caveat — its new date would follow the U.S. Open.
Trying to attract the strongest field possible, Grube kept hearing the same thing from players — the week after the U.S. Open is going to be "tough."
So, in response, Grube and Bessette started asking players one question: "Why?"
"All these reasons we kept hearing, Andy and I were like, 'I actually think we can do something about that,'" Grube said. "So we started — I mean, it wasn't one thing, it was 50 little things. But one of the big things we started with is that people always say, 'Hey, the week after the [U.S.] Open, the guys are tired.' So let's make it as easy as possible to get here."
The first thing they did was offer a free, non-stop charter flight out of a private airport near the U.S. Open's location for its players, caddies and their families. When everyone lands in Connecticut, their courtesy cars are ready, and any kids who tag along are greeted with gift packs.
That's not all, though. In terms of those 50 little things, that includes revamping the daycare programs, improving the player food menu, starting caddie appreciation day, or something as small as fixing a player's broken phone or replacing an iPad for a player's child who's crying because they lost theirs.
"I think it's a testament to if you run a really good tournament and you care deeply about it, you can attract the best players in the world," Patrick Cantlay said, "even if there are some roadblocks in the way."
Another key component to possessing a strong field year after year is developing relationships with young players via exemptions — one of which was Cantlay in 2011. That year at TPC River Highlands, Cantlay, at age 19, shot 60 in Round 2, the lowest Tour round ever by an amateur.
"Giving exemptions to Patrick Cantlay when he's a freshman at UCLA," Grube said, "and Justin Thomas is a sophomore at the University of Alabama, Webb Simpson, Rickie Fowler, and just really, really trying to do our research and our homework on kind of who the next generation is, and building relationships with the next generation of guys."
Seventy years after the failed turtle race led to the fruition of a Connecticut and Tour staple, some of golf's young stars, such as Chris Gotterup, Cole Hammer, Benjamin James and Michael Thorbjornsen, will make the trip to rural Connecticut and round out a field that boasts four of the world's top five ranked players, which includes Thomas and Cantlay. They'll all be vying for a chunk of a purse that is $7 million more than it was in 1952.
With what the tournament has accomplished and overcome, the goal is to keep repeating its cycle while continuously evolving. However, the tournament's mission has, and will, always be the same.
"If you go back in time and talk to those people who started (the Insurance City Open), I bet you they had some of the same passion that we have," Grube said. "It's about how do we give back to our community? How do we make an impact?"
And that's been the magic formula.
"The tournament's a big success story," Cantlay said. "I think that they get a great field on a tough week on the schedule. The week after the U.S. Open is probably not a week that you would expect a lot of the best players to play. They have done such a great job with the tournament, with the community supporting it and with Travelers, they do an amazing job this week. It's definitely one of the best tournaments of the year."