Slow and steady

I’m fairly confident in saying that the Travelers Championship is the only professional golf tournament to be started as a response to a failed turtle race.

In 1951, Greater Hartford’s Junior Chamber of Commerce (aka The Jaycees) were looking to raise money. Because it was 1951, and this kind of thing had apparently worked well in Evansville, Illinois, they decided to hold a “turtle derby.” It was, by all accounts, a big flop. The “thoroughbred” turtles (whatever those are) got lost in transit from Louisiana, so the Jaycees had to wade into a nearby pond and pick up whatever shelled amphibians they could find. The race was sparsely attended and only brought in $1,800 (which actually seems pretty strong for a turtle race in Connecticut in 1951).

Regardless, the Jaycees weren’t pleased with the turnout or the money the turtle derby raised, and because it was 1951, they simply wrote a letter to the PGA asking to host a tournament, which the PGA approved. The next year, with sponsorships from the major insurance companies in the area (including Travelers), the Insurance City Open was born.

A Model of Consistency

The Insurance City Open Media Guide from 1964.

Since 1952, The Travelers Championship has been played every year and has become an anchor event on the PGA Tour schedule though it’s run through a few name changes in that time. The tournament went by the Greater Hartford Open from 1967-2003, making it the longest (and best known) title for the event. Though I’ve never attended, I like to imagine the old money Greenwich-ites refer to the event as the “GHO” as they sip their Rob Roys in the hospitality tents.

The Travelers Championship also remained in much the same location for the event’s 65-year history: smack in the center of New Yorkachusetts. For the first three decades, the event was held at Wethersfield Country Club, two towns north of its current home in Cromwell. Today’s course, now part of the TPC network of clubs, plays to a short-ish par of 70 at 6,841 yards – one reason why big hitters like Stewart Cink, Hunter Mahan, and Tron’s boy Bagdad Gerry have had continued success here.

Firsts, Bests, Odds, and Ends

As a result of this tournament’s long run, a series of notable golfing firsts (and oddities) have occurred in the midst of pro-sports-starved Connecticut.

  • Arnold Palmer won his first PGA Tour event in the U.S., as he captured the Insurance City Open in 1956 after winning the Canadian Open the previous year. The King took the title four years later to become the first two-time winner of the event.

What a stud.

  • In 1997, Stewart Cink picked up his first PGA Tour win as a rookie, which catapulted him to a Rookie of the Year award.
  • Lefty took the Greater Hartford Open in 2001 and ’02, becoming the first player to win the event Drake-style. Mickelson dropped a career-best 61 on Saturday in 2001 to seal the win before charging from five shots back to defend his title the next year.
  • Peter Jacobsen won the tournament twice – in 1984 and 2003. His winnings for the earlier victory came to $72,000. His winnings in 2003? $720,000. #TigerTax
  • From 2005-2012, five of the seven tournament winners were first-time PGA Tour winners.
  • The Travelers Championship has seen 22 sudden-death playoffs.
  • The course record is held by Patrick Cantlay, who fired a ridiculous 10-under 60 in 2011, and It remains the lowest round ever shot on the PGA Tour by an amateur.
  • Billy Casper owned the event in the ‘60s, winning in 1963, 1965, and 1968, before taking his fourth and final title in 1973. (Sidenote: I feel like he gets forgotten among the Palmer/Nicklaus/Player discussion, but Casper notched 69 career professional wins, 51 PGA Tour victories (good for seventh all time), and three majors).
  • Whether it’s the average household income or the lack of major sports, Connecticut shows up for its golf tournament. The Travelers is the second-most-attended PGA Tour stop, behind only the wildly popular (read: debaucherous) Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Though most of us will be dealing with a golf hangover after this three-week major bender, and some people may even be looking ahead to golf returning to the Olympics, the Travelers boasts some interesting history and the potential for a compelling tournament.