By Ann Liguori
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This past Sunday, 44-year-old Ken Duke won his first PGA tour title at the Travelers Championship. Duke was ranked 144th in the world and hadn’t won in 186 previous starts. But on a sunny day in Cromwell, Ct., at the TPC River Highlands course, Duke sunk a short birdie putt on the second playoff hole to beat Chris Stroud.
It’s another feelgood ending as Duke joins five others in a span of eight years to win their first PGA tour title at the Travelers. Bubba Watson won his first PGA tour title there in 2010; Hunter Mahan in 2007; J.J. Henry in 2006; Fredrik Jacobsen in 2011 and Marc Leishman last year.
Why have so many players won their first-ever tour titles at the Travelers?
I’m convinced it’s because the staff creates a very friendly, family-oriented environment and go out of their way to make the players and their families feel comfortable and at home, from spa days for the wives to day-care programs for their children. They also offer a free chartered plane for the players from the U.S. Open venue each year and have cars waiting for them when they arrive. They create a relaxing environment for all, which allows the players to just focus on golf and having fun. Plus, the course set-up is also much more forgiving than the U.S. Open layout the week before, which allows the golfers to exhale, play their own games and attack the pins.
The tournament staff works year-round to nurture their relationships with the players and their families, visiting many of the players at other tournaments throughout the year, sending cards or gifts for special occasions, etc. They really make an effort to reach out and maintain communication with the players. And then when the players come in for the tournament, the staff can’t do enough to accommodate them, going the extra mile to ensure the week runs smoothly for everyone.
That special attention is one of the reasons why The Travelers has become one of the favorite stops for the players on the PGA tour.
“I obviously love this tournament,” said eight-time PGA tour winner and two-time champion tour winner Brad Faxon, who won it in 2005 and has played in the Travelers for 29 years. “Being from Rhode Island, I’m considered a ‘local’ and the tournament organizers and the spectators here always make me feel welcome. … Andy Bessette is a fellow- Rhode Island guy and we’ve become great friends.”
The tournament has also done an excellent job in deciding which players get offered exemptions.
“We look at character,” says Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Travelers Company. “Are they nice young men? Are they good young men and are they trying to do something special around golf?”
“Look at Patrick Cantlay a couple of years ago, in 2011,” recalled Bessette. “He shot a 60! How cool is that? A young man in college and he comes out and shoots a 60.”
It was a course record and the lowest round in PGA tour history by an amateur.
“His Mom, Dad and Grandpa were here,” added Bessette. “People are still talking about it! Patrick has been a friend of ours ever since and that means the world to us.”
Bessette said he’ll never forget when Webb Simpson came up to him in 2008 and said, “‘Thanks for the exemption.’ And Webb comes back after winning the U.S. Open to play here last year and continues to be a big draw here.”
Justin Rose honored his commitment and competed in the Travelers, a few days after winning the U.S. Open this year. Rose finished tied for 13th. (But on Monday, he withdrew from the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., citing exhaustion.)
“Hunter (Mahan) and Bubba (Watson) won their first tournaments here,” Bessette said. “That means the world to us. The values that these players bring to our tournament are very important, steeped in tradition, in behavior. They are good people with fine values and that’s really important to us. If Hunter, or Bubba or Mark (Leishman) were my sons, I’d be proud to say that they are my sons. Class acts!”
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