CROMWELL, Conn. — Every tournament on the PGA Tour is handed eight exemptions to give out as it sees fit. Most events award their spots to a combination of past champions, local products, pros who might be past their prime but have had prior success, and players who will help sell tickets, such as John Daly.
The Travelers Championship is different. Instead of rewarding past performances, the Travelers targets promise. They like to include in the tournament up-and-coming younger players who might still be amateurs or who have recently turned professional. This year, four of the eight exemptions were handed to former amateur standouts who joined the professional ranks this week: Patrick Rodgers, Cameron Wilson, Oliver Goss, and Bobby Wyatt.
It’s an approach that has been in place for more than a decade. Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, and Webb Simpson are just a few of the players to receive exemptions into the Travelers before they were well known, and before they were members of the PGA Tour. Because the Travelers helped them early in their careers by placing them in a tour event, they’ve remembered the gesture years later, and continue to play in this tournament more years than not (Fowler and Simpson are not at TPC River Highlands this week, but Simpson played here the last six years).
“Webb Simpson’s on the range back in 2008, I walk up and thank him for being here with us, and he said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Bessette, for the exemption. I’ll always remember you,’ ” said Andy Bessette, executive vice president at Travelers. “Fast forward to 2012 [when Simpson won the US Open in San Francisco the week before the Travelers], and he comes back. He didn’t have to come here, across the country, after winning the US Open. I said, ‘Why’d you come back?’ And he said, ‘Because Travelers gave me one of my first sponsor’s exemptions.’
“That’s the best you can hope for. We’re building our bank for the future, and these kids are our future.”
All four players making their professional debut this week had decorated amateur careers. Rodgers was the top-ranked amateur in the world; Wilson won the individual portion of the NCAA Championship last month; Goss was the runner-up at last year’s US Amateur, held at The Country Club in Brookline; and Wyatt, who once shot 58 in a junior tournament, helped Alabama win the past two NCAA team titles.
Because the PGA Tour did away with offering tour cards at its year-end qualifying school, the easiest way — not that it’s easy — for a college star to jump onto the big tour is to turn professional and make enough money in the limited tournament appearances (non-members of the PGA Tour can only accept seven exemptions). So the Travelers, which comes one week after the US Open, has become a popular time to turn professional, especially because it has embraced younger players, and developed a reputation for finding spots for them in the tournament.
“This is the place where I played my first-ever event on the PGA Tour. No matter what happens in the future, this is always going to hold a very special place in my heart,” said Rodgers, who also received an exemption into the Travelers in 2012, when he missed the cut.
He’s made his pro debut a successful one, shooting rounds of 66-69 to make the 36-hole cut. Now it’s guaranteed to be a financially rewarding one, and possibly very lucrative, since Rodgers will start the third round tied for 20th, six shots behind leader Scott Langley. The tournament winner receives $1.116 million from a $6.2 million purse.
The other three weren’t as fortunate, all missing the cut. Wilson (73-75), Goss (70-71), and Wyatt (72-68) all will leave with no earnings, but every PGA Tour player’s professional career began somewhere, and they’ve followed in the footsteps of many in making it here.
“They do a wonderful job of being nice to young players coming out and making their professional debuts,” Wyatt said. “I think everyone wants to play in the Travelers Championship and debut here. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am and thankful for the opportunity.”
Making room for younger players with plenty of potential is one of the ways this tournament has identified as a way it can be unique. With arguably the best field in its history (four of the world’s top 10 are here), it’s hard to argue against the approach.
“Giving opportunity to those who deserve it but who otherwise wouldn’t be in a position to have it,” said Jay Fishman, chairman and CEO of Travelers. “We’ve developed a reputation. It didn’t start off that way, it wasn’t our intention to build a reputation of being that kind of entity, but it began to move that way, and we’ve loved it.”
Said Bessette: “You put a buck in and it’s paid off in millions. These young men have all kinds of people knocking at their door, and they always remember us and they come back, and they’re part of what we do. That’s really good, it makes us happy.”