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February 20, 2023 Bigger & Better

With larger purse, guarantee of top golfers, Travelers Championship poised for historic year

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Travelers Championship Tournament Director Nathan Grube in his downtown Hartford office.

More than 70 years after Ted Kroll won the inaugural Insurance City Open in 1952, organizers of the now-named Travelers Championship expect 2023 to feature the biggest golf tournament Connecticut has ever seen.

There’s a lot going for this year’s tournament.

The PGA Tour in October announced the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell will get an elevated status in 2023, meaning a total prize pool of $20 million (more than double what was offered last year), and a guarantee that most of the world’s top golfers will compete.

Premier golfers are the lifeblood of any successful tournament because they draw fans and sponsors. Travelers Championship organizers have already announced that Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, according to the Official World Golf Ranking, has committed to this year’s competition. (McIlroy has dropped to No. 3 in the world since the announcement.)

Andy Bessette

“You’re going to get an unbelievable field, a field that I think will be as good as any major golf event, any of the majors, and any other elevated golf event,” said Travelers Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Bessette in a recent interview with the Hartford Business Journal.

The Travelers Championship, which is part of the FedExCup series, is also the only PGA Tour event in New England this year, which means regional and national attention will be focused on Cromwell from June 19 to 25. That should generate more interest from nearby out-of-state fans.

“It’s going to be like nothing that we’ve ever seen here in Connecticut. This is going to be that special and that different,” Bessette said. “I guarantee this is the biggest golf event that’s ever been in the state of Connecticut since 1952.”

Strong field

Bessette said he began negotiating with PGA Tour officials midway through last year to get the Travelers Championship elevated status for 2023.

The PGA Tour established the elevated tournament structure in response to the departures of several top golfers — including former Travelers Championship winners Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson — to the competing, Saudi-backed LIV Tour, which has offered players higher guaranteed money and a shorter playing season.

Thirteen PGA events — not including the majors — will have the higher status this year. They will pay out a combined $315 million in prize money, according to Axios.

As part of the change, Travelers Cos. and the PGA will jointly fund the $20-million purse for Connecticut’s tournament, $3.6 million of which will go to the winner.

Travelers Championship’s highest previous purse was $8.3 million in 2022. Bessette said third place at this year’s event will net more than last year’s winner, Xander Schauffele, who took home almost $1.5 million.

The elevated status also guarantees that 19 of the top 22 golfers in the world, according to Player Impact Program rankings, will compete in the tournament, which typically fields 156 players. Bessette said the richer purse will convince other big-name golfers outside of the top ranks to also participate.

Xander Schauffele was the 2022 Travelers Championship winner, taking home nearly $1.5 million in prize money.

“You get a very strong guaranteed field (with this designation),” Bessette said. “And on top of that, who do you think will also show up because it’s a $20-million purse as opposed to an $8.6-million purse? This becomes one of the major tournaments of the season.”

Bessette called McIlroy a “great friend.” This will be the golfer’s fifth year playing at TPC River Highlands. In all four of his previous Travelers Championship appearances, McIlroy finished in the top 20.

“I remember Rory the first time he came here he said, ‘this feels like a major, from the sponsors, the volunteers, to the fans,’” said Travelers Championship Tournament Director Nathan Grube. “He said ‘There’s people waiting on the first tee at 6:50 in the morning when I tee up — you don’t get that in every market.’”

What about Tiger Woods, who has never played in the Cromwell tournament? Grube said he’d love to see Woods participate in this year’s Travelers Championship, but acknowledged the golfer’s serious injury from a 2021 car accident has limited his playing time.

Heightened interest

Grube said that before the elevated-status announcement, tournament organizers were already planning a bigger event in 2023 after three years of navigating COVID-19-related restrictions and some fan hesitancy, which limited attendance.

Grube said the tournament doesn’t report attendance figures, but last year’s event was more in line with 2021’s numbers than pre-pandemic 2019.

The challenge this year will be trying to find the perfect balance between “letting as many people be a part of this as possible without compromising the experience for everybody.”

Since the elevated-status announcement, though, Grube said interest in all levels of the event have increased — from volunteers reaching out about how they can help, to companies asking about available sponsorships.

Individual tickets don’t go on sale until April, but corporate packages and club tickets are available and sponsorship sales are “way ahead” of where they normally are at this time of year, Bessette said.

Multiple hospitality suites on the 15th- and 17th-hole greens and 18th-hole tee — which offer air conditioning, food and other perks, and are used by companies to host clients, employees and other guests — are already sold out on certain days, Grube said.

“We still have some stuff available but we’re sold out of some places much further in advance than we ever had been before,” Grube said.

2024 and beyond

The Travelers Championship has been a charitable endeavor from the start, with 100% of net proceeds going to nonprofits.

Since Travelers Cos. became the tournament’s title sponsor in 2007, the Travelers Championship has generated more than $25 million for nearly 900 local charities.

Last year, more than $2.5 million was given out to about 140 organizations, including The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, First Tee of Connecticut, animal shelters and local Boys & Girls Clubs.

Bessette said the heightened status of this year’s championship will help with these efforts.

“The greater we make this tournament, the bigger, the more desired, the more people that attend and the more companies that buy sponsorships — it will all translate into more money for charity, more excitement and more pride in the community,” Bessette said.

Beyond this year, the Travelers Championship’s standing is less clear. It’s not guaranteed an elevated status in 2024, and there’s been some speculation the spots could rotate.

That could mean next year’s event loses some prestige.

But that could change and Bessette has close ties with PGA Tour officials, which could work in the tournament’s favor.

Travelers will know by this spring what events get elevated status in 2024. Bessette said he’d love for Travelers Championship to receive that designation annually, but he has confidence in the event regardless.

Travelers is under contract to be the tournament’s title sponsor through at least 2030.

“I think we can do a really good job, elevated or not, in 2024 and beyond,” Bessette said.

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