Plane Ride to Birdie-Fest Sends U.S. Open Golfers to Connecticut

The organizers of next week’s PGA Tour event in Connecticut are making sure that former champion Hunter Mahan’s cross-country journey from Seattle after the U.S. Open will be as trouble-free as possible.

The same goes for about 40 other golfers at Chambers Bay who have decided to play in the Travelers Championship, which comes a week after one of the sport’s four major tournaments.

With that spot on the U.S. PGA Tour schedule -- making the event tempting for weary pros to skip after the U.S. Open -- the Travelers provides free travel, a family atmosphere and a course that yields loads of birdies on the heels of one of the toughest tests players will face all year.

“It can be challenging for Travelers, but they really do a great job of doing everything they can to make it a great event,” Mahan, who won the event in 2007, said in a telephone interview. “The players show their support of that because the field has grown in popularity and significance over the past few years.”

It starts by simplifying travel plans for golfers, who are at the first U.S. Open ever held in the Pacific Northwest at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, Washington.

Courtesy Cars

Organizers from the Travelers Championship teamed with the U.S. Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open, to arrange a system in which players can drive their courtesy cars right up to the plane at Sea-Tac Airport on the Monday morning after the tournament ends. The players and their families then board a non-stop charter flight to Hartford. A new set of courtesy cars is lined up waiting on the airport tarmac in Connecticut, allowing the players to simply get off and go, said Travelers Championship tournament director Nathan Grube.

“There’s so much competition out there for players, their schedules; you just want to make it easier,” Grube said in an interview at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut. “I can’t tell you the amount of times we’ve had families come off the plane and say, ‘Thank you, that was so easy.’”

Bradley International Airport is only about 25 miles north of the course at TPC River Highlands.

Grube said while his initial reaction was that the tournament might struggle after U.S. Opens held on the West Coast, the Travelers was able to bring in strong fields in 2010 following Pebble Beach and in 2012 after the Olympic Club in San Francisco. For many, it’s become a stopping point as they head to Europe to begin preparations for July’s British Open.

Before Travelers took over as the title sponsor in 2007, attendance for the event, previously known as the Buick Championship, had dropped to about 80,000 annually. Last year, it drew close to 250,000 fans.

Local Economy

The tournament, which is the only PGA Tour stop in the Northeast until the FedEx Cup playoffs in August, brings in about $28 million to the local economy each year, Grube said. It has a $6.4 million purse this year.

“We made a decision in 2007 when Travelers became the title sponsor to make sure the players, their families, the trainers, caddies -– pretty much the entire team around the player -- were going to be our priority,” Grube said, declining to say how much the private flight costs. “The charter was part of that decision and, while it is an investment, we’ve seen a direct correlation between this strategy and both the strength of our field and the dollars we’ve been able to generate for charity.”

This year’s tournament in Connecticut is set to include players such as Mahan, Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Keegan Bradley, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker, Luke Donald, Zach Johnson and Ernie Els.

Birdie Blitz

The course at TPC River Highlands can also be a confidence-builder after the U.S. Open, which has had a winning score better than 1-under par just three times in the past decade. The average winning score in Connecticut over the past 21 years has been almost 15 under. That was the winning score a year ago, when Kevin Streelman set a PGA Tour record with birdies on the final seven holes to pull out the victory.

“It’s the only event I’ve played every single season on tour and there’s a reason for that,” the 36-year-old Streelman, a two-time PGA Tour winner, said in an interview.

Tournament organizers have installed a plaque on the 12th tee honoring Streelman’s closing birdie blitz, which broke a record set by Mike Souchak in winning the 1956 St. Paul Open.

“I grew up in a small town outside Chicago -- a good Midwestern town of hardworking people -- and it reminds me of here,” Streelman said. “They take hold of something, put their heart into it and make a high, high-quality product. That’s why the field is so awesome here every year and the course is so fun to play.”

Connecticut Sports

While Grube said the Travelers has drawn some fans and sponsors in from neighboring New York, the tournament is really an opportunity for Connecticut to showcase the sports passion of a state without a professional team. The Hartford Whalers of the National Hockey League moved to North Carolina in 1997.

“If you want to tell people what your community does with a professional sports franchise, this is the best way to do it,” Grube said. “People talk about hockey and say how are we going to get a team back? I say, ‘This is our opportunity to scream to owners and to let other businesses know: this is what happens when you give us a professional sports franchise.’”