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Sponsor saves PGA Tour golf in Connecticut

Travelers embraces role

The Travelers Championship has kept the PGA Tour part of the New England summer.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Travelers Championship has kept the PGA Tour part of the New England summer.

CROMWELL, Conn. — Not long ago, the tournament that began in 1952 as the Insurance City Open was issued its last rites. No title sponsor? Not good. But no date on the PGA Tour schedule? Not a chance.

In 2006, all signs pointed to the number of PGA Tour events held in New England being cut in half. It gave the residents of central Connecticut who supported the tournament a sorrowful sense of déjà vu, coming less than a decade after the beloved Whalers bolted Hartford and reinvented themselves as the Carolina Hurricanes.

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In some ways, the impending end was even more painful, because the tournament affectionately known to locals as the GHO predated the Whalers by 20 years, and counted Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Lee Trevino, Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger, Greg Norman, and Phil Mickelson among its past champions.

The GHO needed a white knight. A red umbrella came to the rescue instead.

Travelers, a Hartford-based insurance company, took over the role of title sponsor, and when fate intervened, a date opened on the PGA Tour schedule. Thus was born the Travelers Championship, which has embraced its annual spot one week after the US Open, kept the PGA Tour part of the New England summer, and brought growth and stability to what had been an uncertain situation.

“The reason we did this is because we’re a hometown sponsor, the community is very important to us, the local charities that we give to are very important to us, and not to understate it, but it’s really important to our business,” said Andy Bessette, the chief administrative officer at Travelers who brokered the deal with the PGA Tour. “We entertain a couple thousand people during tournament week, our agents, our brokers, our customers. It’s brand recognition, too, the red floating umbrella in the pond, the broadcasts going around the world. It’s great for our brand.”

Travelers took over for Buick, which had been title sponsor for just three years, the latest in a string of tournament names. The Insurance City Open (1952-66) became the Greater Hartford Open (1967-72), which became the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open (1973-84), which spawned the Canon Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open (1985-88), which was reduced to simply the Canon Greater Hartford Open (1989-2002), reduced again to just the Greater Hartford Open (2003), followed by the Buick Championship (2004-06).

Most tournaments evolve with sponsor changes, but the Travelers’ plight was compounded in 2006 by having no date to play. When Buick announced it was leaving, the PGA Tour filled the GHO’s summer slot with someone else. It seemed the end was near, but months later, 84 Lumber chose to get out of the tournament sponsorship game, reopening the door for Travelers, which had a long history of sponsoring golf on the PGA Tour, from the Masters to the West Coast Swing.

The new date was the week after the US Open, which suited Travelers fine. The company pounced on the opportunity, increasing the purse that first year from $4.4 million to $6 million, a sign it intended to create the most appealing tournament possible. Unlike the Deutsche Bank Championship, the playoff tournament at TPC Boston whose field is determined by the FedEx Cup points list, the Travelers Championship needs to sell itself to PGA Tour players.

“I think that sent a message,” said Nathan Grube, the tournament director since 2005. “Andy made a commitment to coming out and getting to know the guys, so we would go on the road at least three or four times a year in those first few years. Andy carried a notebook around and he asked everybody what we can do to make it better.

“The Travelers team decided that we’re going to take this tour event and we’re going to do something that’s not being done somewhere else in the country. You can have all the fun activities, but if the players don’t come, if the players don’t like it, it’s not going to work.”

The players have come. This year, with the purse increased again to $6.1 million, there were 10 players here ranked among the world’s top 30; 16 major winners, led by Justin Rose, who captured the US Open one week ago; and 82 players (more than half the 156-player field) who had combined to win 278 events.

“Travelers has worked hard to make it better,” said Hunter Mahan, who made his PGA Tour debut here as a 17-year-old amateur, won the inaugural Travelers Championship in 2007, and is tied for seventh at 7-under 203 going into Sunday’s final round. “It’s had a renewal since Travelers took over. It’s been fun to see it grow and be a part of that.”

A perfect week of weather has contributed to some of the biggest crowds in tournament history, which is great news for the dozens of local charities that benefit, since every dollar of the net proceeds goes to charity. The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp — which provides a getaway to children battling cancer and serious blood diseases, and their families — is the primary beneficiary.

Others are taking notice. The Travelers won three of the PGA Tour’s 11 “Best-Of Awards” in December (there were 45 tournaments eligible): best use of players, most fan-friendly event, and best title sponsor integration.

Three years into their initial four-year contract, Bessette and Travelers extended the deal for four years, through 2014. They’re in the process of negotiating with the PGA Tour again on another deal — an agreement needs to be in place by September.

The local company that tossed a local tournament a life raft in its time of need wants to continue leading it.

“Have we exceeded expectations every year that we’ve been title sponsor so far? I’d say yes, but it’s only because we work really hard,” Bessette said. “Next year has to be better than this year. It’s always trying to improve every element of the event, whether it be the field, the facilities, the people, the celebrities for the pro-am day. Because it’s all for charity, it’s all for the community. Those are the reasons we do it.”

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.
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