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How the Travelers golf tournament got hot

Daniel Roberts

The Travelers Championship, in Cromwell, Conn., is the PGA Tour stop with the misfortune of taking place one week after the US Open, pro golf’s second-biggest event of the year. Because of that scheduling, it’s an event that was once seen as missable.

It is missable no longer. Last year the Travelers tournament hit a record-high for ticket sales, and ended in a thrilling finish, with Jordan Spieth sinking a bunker shot on the 18th hole to win a playoff. TV ratings soared.

This year, seven of the world’s top 10 golfers committed to play (even after a ruinous weekend at the US Open). The event again finished in a thriller, with Bubba Watson coming from behind to get his third Travelers win. And the final round on Sunday notched CBS a 2.2 overnight rating—down slightly from the 2.7 on Sunday of last year (it would have been hard to top Spieth’s heroics), but double the rating from 2016. And that was in the midst of the World Cup.

The Travelers Championship, which began in 1952 and moved to TPC River Highlands in 1984, has quietly become the most popular non-Major tournament of the year, an event with the potential to attract new fans to golf—something the sport desperately needs to prioritize. Golf Magazine writer Alan Shipnuck began his mailbag column this week by asking, “How has Greater Hartford Open become such a big-time tournament?”

The answer: Travelers Insurance, which took over as title sponsor in 2007, has revitalized the event and prioritized player happiness. Travelers rebuilt the practice facility, the PGA Tour invested $4 million in renovating the course, and together, the PGA Tour and Travelers are building a glitzy new 40,000-square-foot clubhouse in time for next year’s tournament.

“In 2006, for three or four months, it was actually dead and gone,” said Travelers EVP Andy Bessette in April on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast. “It was going the same way as the Hartford Whalers. The first few years were tough, they were tough years for us. But we had one model from the beginning: that the status quo was unacceptable… Make it a better experience for the players, their families, their wives, and their caddies. And the media, and the fans.”

Jordan Spieth tips his hat to fans as he is introduced at the first hole during the final round of the Travelers Championship golf tournament, Sunday, June 25, 2017, in Cromwell, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Indeed, the PGA Tour named Travelers its Tournament of the Year in 2017. The event also earned the honors for Most Fan-Friendly and Best Sales. Most importantly, the players voted it their Players’ Choice.

“The players love it, the families love it, and they take great care of our caddies,” says Kevin Streelman, who won the tournament in 2014. Streelman joined the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast the day before this year’s Travelers Championship began. “What I was able to accomplish here will go down as probably the best professional afternoon of my career. It’s a place that will always be dear to my heart. I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, and [Cromwell] reminds me of it. There’s a lot of good, hard-working people in Hartford and Cromwell, great mom-and-pop restaurants we love visiting every year. And on top of all that, it’s a great golf course. Having so many of the top 10 in the world here this week, especially after a tough week for everybody like last week, shows how much this tournament means to the Tour.”

Last year, the Travelers Championship raised $1.6 million for charity (most of it goes to The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a charity for children and families dealing with serious illnesses), its highest total ever. The 2018 tournament raised $2 million.

Streelman spoke to Yahoo Finance again on Friday morning at the course, before the start of Round 2. “What’s neat about the course is the finishing four holes,” he said. Bubba Watson, this year’s eventual winner, also praised the final stretch of the course, saying in a radio interview that, “You can see all your shots.”

Fans feel the same. The course at TPC River Highlands is designed for in-person viewing and walkability. The 18th hole, where Spieth last year, as the Hartford Courant describes it, “made the most iconic shot in Travelers Championship history,” has a huge, grassy amphitheater surrounding the hole, ideal for fans to assemble on Sunday afternoon to witness a potential showdown.

Kevin Streelman sizes up a putt during Round 2 of the 2018 Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., on June 22, 2018. (Daniel Roberts/Oath)

Of course, the equipment side of the golf business has been struggling. Last year, Adidas and Nike both exited the clubs-and-balls business. Adidas sold off its Taylormade division to private equity, and Nike Golf halted all manufacturing of Nike clubs and balls. Rounds of golf played in America have waned over the past few years.

But interest at the pro level is looking healthier.

If you ask Streelman, who is 39, younger stars and more golf experimentation are the keys. “Our players out here are getting younger and younger,” he says. “The average age now [of the top 10 players] is 27 or 28. When I got out here, it was 33 or 34. So that’s a drastic change in the average professional. And I think things like TopGolf [in which Callaway has a 15% ownership stake] have been great for golf in general. Whatever we can do to get millennials… whether it’s shorter courses, shorter rounds, to keep the game fun, we’re willing to give it a try.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite .

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