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How the Travelers Championship landed Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy to build its strongest field ever

Getting the biggest stars in the game to play the week after the U.S. Open seems unlikely. But the Travelers has done so as part of their aggressive pursuit to become a powerhouse PGA Tour stop.

The 15th at TPC River Highlands is one of the must-watch holes on the PGA Tour.

There is nothing like the PGA Tour in professional sports. There is no great analogy, theme, or organizing principle that you could use to compare it some other North American professional league.

The PGA Tour is the league and union all baked into one. There’s a commissioner and an executive staff operating everything, but the Tour is, essentially, owned by the players and created by them. There are rules set up by player advisory councils and the aforementioned executives, but the power all originally derives from the players. Those players, however, remain independent contractors.

Perhaps the best comparison we can make between the PGA Tour and the major American sports leagues is that each of the 47 events on the schedule is like a team. The PGA Tour probably wouldn’t appreciate this characterization, and the tourney organizers might not say it out loud all the time, but they are competing against each other. They just are. The schedule is jam-packed in a season that’s almost year-round, and like the standings in the NBA or MLB, there’s a natural ordering that just happens — big-time events, middling events, and the lower-tier events.

The only problem with that comparison, and it’s a big one, is that these 47 events aren’t allowed to throw their money around, unlimited or capped, at the players of their choosing. Purse sizes can vary, but beyond the majors, not dramatically. The tournaments don’t get to decide their field and often, they don’t get much autonomy on the date. The players remain independent contractors and the Tour sets the schedule and rules.

A tournament (and often its title sponsor) is not totally powerless, of course, and the PGA Tour works with each to try and make everyone happy. There’s still going to be a natural sorting, however, and I wanted to better understand how these events work to improve their status in what is often an unstated competition against one other.

So I went to the Travelers Championship, a longstanding event outside Hartford that’s come to occupy the slot immediately following the U.S. Open. That’s not a great spot on the schedule, coming just days after the exhaustion of the reputed “toughest test in golf.” But the Travelers has carved out a strong identity on Tour, with the players, media, fans, and the shot-callers at the Tour itself. The other events after U.S.-based majors have also handled their less-than-ideal spots as well. Harbour Town and Greensboro have a similar strong identity to Hartford.

The Memorial Tournament Presented By Nationwide - Round Two
Rory and Jordan in the same field is what every PGA Tour event wants.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This year, the Travelers made waves with its field in what has become, for golf nerds, a low-key story of the season. They can’t force players to come, as noted above, but have somehow managed to draw Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth for the first time, and Jason Day again. That’s every member of the alleged “Big Three” term we were throwing around this time last year (and became quickly obsolete).

A new PGA Tour rule for this season helped: it’s a mandate that players who didn’t have at least 25 starts in the previous season to add an event to their schedules that they hadn’t played in the last four years. That’s one of those ways they can help try and make everyone across this 47-event schedule happy. But even if that’s what made Rory, Jason, and Jordan come to Connecticut the week after a major, it’s still remarkable that they all chose the same one (and there’s power beyond those three with Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson et al.) How did this Hartford event get this done? And how have they managed to stand out on a crowded schedule and on a less-than-ideal slot on the calendar?

Recruiting vs. Relationships

I’ve spoken to a handful of tournament directors over the years and all cite player recruiting as part of the job and something they’re constantly working on with the Tour. Nathan Grube, the Travelers tournament director and Andy Bessette, a Travelers CAO who has become the front man of sorts for this event, take this to the extreme. But they don’t see it as recruiting in the way you might think of Nick Saban sitting on an 17-year-old’s living room couch.

“It’s all about building relationships,” said Bessette, a former Olympian who doesn’t really like calling traveling around and talking to professional golfers a “work.” He acknowledges, however, that “there are 47 tournaments that are vying for what we’re vying for.” So he and Grube go out three or four times a year, usually before the mid-June date of the championship. This year, they went to the Honda Classic in late February, the Masters in April, and The Players in May.

Bessette says he doesn’t see comparable reps from the other events out there during the season, building these relationships with the pros. “Every time I go out, there’s no other title sponsors — there are no executives from any other title sponsors that I’ve ever seen out there,” he said. After seeing them at the Masters and The Players, I got the sense that they’re always hustling to pitch and “build” the bridge with these pros — not as unrelenting pests, but making the Travelers present and top of mind.

They can’t go on to the driving range at the Masters, but at the other places where they can get access to that, the locker room, the media center, and clubhouse, they will be there grinding. “I never see my equivalent or a CFO or CEO or a CEAO or a C-something. I never see them out at tournaments walking around talking to the guys.” Bessette recounted taking Bubba Watson, who has become a reliable annual star and contender in Hartford, to Chili’s instead of a fancy steakhouse. That may, of course, be more of Bubba’s style.

Travelers Championship - Final Round
Bubba Watson and Andy Bessette in 2015, Bubba’s second win in Hartford.
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

It seems basic — get out there and press the players. The majors, WGCs, Players, and some of the other top tier events do not have to do this. But the Travelers is hustling more than any of them and working to become a ubiquitous presence on Tour, even when their event is months out and not on anyone’s mind. They’re establishing a rep among the players, media, and Tour. This year’s field seems to be an indication that it’s working.

Getting Rory, Jason, and Jordan

Even with the work that they put in, they’re still going to get “Nos” -- consistently and annually. That’s what makes this year’s confluence of Rory, Jordan, and Jason so remarkable. The new rule, no doubt, probably helped. But the work was put in before the rule was put in place. Who knows if the new policy is solely to credit, but Travelers was in a position to pounce when it was put into effect.

The work on Rory, who has a loaded summer schedule on both sides of the pond, started last year at TPC Sawgrass. “I was in the locker room with Rory, Sean, his agent, and Chubby [agent Chubby Chandler],” Bessette recalls. There were no grand plans in place or big business being conducted. It was just Bessette hanging around with Chubby, who he says is a friend, and chatting it up in the locker room, mostly about Ireland.

Bessette remembers the moment Rory then engaged on Hartford becoming a possibility. “We were walking out of the locker room, he says, ‘Andy, when’s your tournament?’” Rory made it clear he couldn’t play the anomalous August date of 2016, a change around golf’s reintroduction to the Olympics that threw the schedule off all summer. But in two years, it was back to this June and Rory committed to “trying to play you.” Bessette was obviously boosted by the conversation, but it was a long time and it wasn’t a firm commitment. Injuries can happen. Schedules can change. But Rory was “good to his word” after the parties continued to keep in touch during the intervening seasons. A year later, they spent their conversation at The Players firming up accommodations for Hartford.

Day’s commitment wasn’t quite the stunner of Rory or Spieth simply because the Aussie had played Hartford twice in the past. But it’s still a massive boost to the field and one that comes from that relationship built over the years. Whether it’s walking with him during a pro-am round at TPC Boston, or annual check-ins during their three or four trips to the field, Day is ready for a chat when the Travelers guys approach.

The last time the Aussie was supposed to play Hartford was 2015. But after a vertigo bout at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, he called Bessette on that Monday to back out of the field. The Travelers CAO had suffered the same issue and told Day to go take care of himself. The two agreed they would be back together in the future, and the future is this week.

Bessette has hours of anecdotes of chatting and chasing players on the PGA Tour. Henrik Stenson told him he'd play Hartford three years ago on the range at Doral after Travelers announced a 10-year extension into 2024 with the Tour. Stenson is still a holdout and harder to corral with European Tour commitments this time of year. But after another recent 20-minute conversation with the big Swede about Olympic training techniques, Bessette vowed that he would “never give up.”

Whether it’s the locker room, the range, or a strip mall restaurant chain, this is an event that’s working to get deeper and doing it thoughout the season. It’s a chase. Some work out, some don't. But a relationship is built.

Accepting the Date

Trying to build a field is one of the bigger challenges facing a tournament and its directors. The other is working within its date, or agitating with the PGA Tour for a new one, often hopelessly.

Every week there are golf tournaments all around the world competing for the top players, who make enough money in this era to only have to play occasionally. Slotting in the week after the U.S. Open is not ideal, but the Travelers has done everything it can to embrace it and use it. Grube reiterates how the event is constantly looking for ways to “take ownership” of their date. “From the beginning, we were not looking at the negatives but looking at the positives,” he said. “We were in the summer, we kicked off the summer in New England. The world is thinking about golf during U.S. Open, so how do we take that momentum into our event?”

“The tournament makes the date, the date doesn’t make the tournament” is their marching order. But still, the week after the U.S. Open?

Travelers Championship - Final Round
The amphitheater surrounding the 18th green can become one of the rowdier and most crowded finishing scenes on the PGA Tour.

That’s where you have to turn things up if you really want to compete and edge out some of the other 47 tournaments. One of the well-known perks for the Travelers is the charter jet they send to the U.S. Open each year. They know they have to add a little extra to get players to Hartford, especially if the national championship is not on the east coast.

So there are reps from the Travelers on site at the U.S. Open, working with the USGA on these travel matters. If a player misses the cut at the U.S. Open, they offer up early hotel options and try to promote the use of their practice facility, one of the stronger ones on Tour. But if you do make the U.S. Open cut, as soon as the last putt drops Sunday night, the charter jet is waiting for you and your family.

“It’s something as simple as ‘you can board plane side and it’s free for you and two guests,’” said Grube on one of the big Travelers perks. Players often come with a full gaggle beyond the two guests, whether it’s their whole family, coaches, or caddies. The charter remains a critical part of the Travelers owning its date.

When talking with them, you do truly get the sense that they’re happy where they are on the schedule and not lobbying for a change with the Tour. After not being thrilled with an involvement on the west coast swing, Bessette said when they were looking at options in 2005, they happily chose a late June slot when the ‘84 Lumber exited the Tour. It might take some extra wrangling, but it seems like they’re right where they want to be and embracing it is making an impact on the players.

Building The Rep

From the charter plane to doing the caddies’ laundry to onesies sent to every Tour player when they have a new child, the details, from large to small, are covered and considered here. You get the sense they’re trying harder, or at least as hard, as anyone on Tour. This is not a plug-and-play operation each year, but built from the ground up year after year. Some things become traditions, some things get scrapped.

It seems to be working, too, as the rep spreads throughout the players, those unpredictable independent contractors. Already this week, Rory McIlroy has talked about the experience, saying “I might come back here next year I like it so much.”

The players echo the tourney PR too, which makes you think it’s just more than PR. “The Travelers is good at listening to what players want,” McIlroy said. “That makes players feel good and wanted.”

Spieth came in part because he’d heard too many good things from his fellow pros. "What put me over the edge was other players' recommendations,” Spieth said. “I was kind of in between what I'm going to do scheduling-wise after the U.S. Open. It was universal.” Before he even teed it up, Spieth said it was an “extremely well-run tournament.” He hadn’t even hit a shot.

Justin Thomas, who finished third here last year and, perhaps you’ve heard, is friends with some of the aforementioned superstars, expects them back too. “I never talked to Jordan or Rory about it but I knew they'd love it. Once you come here once, you'll want to play here.”

These are the best in world who play all the best events in the world. The praise seems to all hit the same notes and tone.

“There’s a temptation to say, ‘How do we build an event that’s going to get these one or two guys to come?’” Grube said. “We’re not going to build this event around one or two players. We are going to talk to everybody in the industry — the networks, the agents, the trainers, the coaches, the caddies — we’re going to talk everybody.”

Even a jaded skeptic (me!) comes away impressed with how aggressive the event has come to consider every little detail. There is only so much they can control on the field and the date, but they’re doing just about everything they can down to every little detail to get as much possible control.

The PGA Tour schedule can become a slog. It’s a 47-tourney march that, by nature, has to have some events that are at the bottom of the standings. The jostle, whether it’s acknowledged as such or not, between those events to elevate themselves is constant and fascinating to watch from outside. The Travelers is an example of the work that goes in to building something that can stick out from the chaff and it’s never paid off greater than with all the stars in Hartford this week.