Photos by Brian Pohorylo
CROMWELL - Oh, what a difference a year can make.
Vijay Singh, with 31 PGA Tour wins,155 top-10 finishes and a No. 6 world ranking, finshed fourth in this year's Travelers, 5 strokes back at -10.
In the third week of June, once again, there was no better place for a New England sports fan to be this past week than TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. What was once the most important and best-attended sporting event in Connecticut was first saved from obscurity when a spot in June in the PGA tournament schedule became available, and was then resuscitated when the Travelers Insurance Company stepped up to the tee to become the title sponsor.
The eighth incarnation of the 55-year old tournament, which has been won by the likes of Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Ken Venturi, Charles Sifford, Lee Trevino, Curtis Strange, Peter Jacobsen, Paul Azinger, Nick Price, Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson, was afforded a second life by the PGA, when it allowed the struggling tournament, graciously hosted by Buick for the past three years, to fill the spot vacated by the 84 Lumber Classic tournament in the middle of June.
Canon, having sponsored the tournament from 1985 through 2002, decided against continuing its involvement after the 2002 tournament. After scrambling and piecing together enough smaller sponsors to keep the tournament alive in 2003, Buick drove in to sponsor for the next three years. Despite that fact that Buick sponsor other tournaments and is one of the largest advertisers on the PGA Tour, the tournament attendance declined precipitously -- from 255,000 attendees in 2003 to 80,000 in 2006.
The decline was widely attributed to the fact that the tournament did not have a set slot on the PGA schedule, which meant it fluctuated from June to July to August and then back to June over the past four years. This accounted for the lack of big name players, which, in turn, accounted for the lack of attendees.
Then came what was commonly viewed as the death knell of the tournament. The PGA had adopted a playoff system, known as the FedEx Cup, and had allotted all of the slots to other tournamenst, leaving Hartford without a time or a place in this new system. Rumors floated that a PGA Senior Tour or an LPGA Tour event might happen, or that the Hartford tournament would be relegated to the PGA Fall Tour, in which tour players would compete to maintain their positions for the next year's eligibility.
The future of the grand old GHO was most certainly in doubt.
Then, out of nowhere, the slot set for the 84 Lumber Classic in June became available, and the Travelers jumped aboard as the title sponsor, promising a bright future for the tournament.
The improvements pledged by the Travelers were immediately apparent upon arrival this year at the TPC River Highlands for this year's tournament. The entrance road now doglegs to the left, around what will soon become the new and vastly upgraded and enlarged practice facilities. Increased from 5 acres to 22 acres, and lengthened from 260 yards to 360 yards, the area is already graded and shows the outlines of the new target greens, with pins placed for added effect. The access roads were either repaved or regraded, and the addition of water trucks kept dust in the parking areas to a minimum.
Within the limits of the course, more grandstands, an upgraded corporate tent area, and free admission on Friday afternoon greeted the attendees, while a $6 million purse and a larger locker room awaited the golfers.
Most importantly, the Travelers promised more big names, even if the tournament immediately followed the U.S. Open Championship. Travelers chartered a jet to fly the golfers to Hartford, and the competition for the FedEx Cup, once thought a curse has ended up being a blessing, as the reconfigured PGA season now culminates in an earned point based playoff. This system will place added emphasis on even the best players playing on a weekly basis, thus insuring a much better field for every included tournament.
David Toms, who won the 2001 PGA Championship, was tied for the lead after the second round of the Travelers, but finished the tournament in a three-way tie for sixth place, 8 strokes under par.
During the first 33 weeks, players accumulate points based upon their finish in the tournaments. The next four weeks now constitute the playoffs, and will utilize a progressive cut to reduce the original 144 participants at The Barclays Tournament down 30 for the final playoff tournament, The Tour Championship.
Even thought the biggest name to commit to the Travelers, Phil Mickelson, was not able to compete due to a prolonged wrist injury that caused him to miss the cut at the U.S. Open, the Travelers delivered some of the biggest names in golf: Vijay Singh, Fred Funk, Tom Lehman, David Toms, Billy Mayfair, Justin Rose, Brad Faxon, Corey Pavin, Chris DiMarco, Padraig Harrington, and Steward Cink; as well as some local names, such as defending champion J.J. Henry, Jerry Kelly, Jay Williamson, and Tim Petrovic. Surely the $1.06 million winner's share had something to do with the tournament's newfound ability to draw star power.
When it was finally time to play some golf, the Travelers was a resounding success, providing fans with everything that a great sporting event can offer: action, suspense, pain, joy, good shots, bad shots, underdogs, a great venue, and an amazing finish. In the end, Hunter Mahan outlasted Jay Williamson to win his first PGA tournament in the first playoff hole.
And what a finish it was. Williamson, a 40-year-old journeyman playing on a sponsor's exemption, who had lettered in baseball and hockey at Trinity College in Hartford, started Sunday with a one-stroke lead over final pairing partner Mahan, a 25-year-old from Orange, Calif. who had played his first PGA tourney here in the 2000 GHO and who finished second to J.J. Henry last year. While both players were looking for their first PGA tournament win, Williamson, who plays on the Nationwide Tour, pro golf's minor league circuit, was hoping to become the first non-PGA member to win since 2001, and the first to win on a sponsor's exemption since 2005. A win would also restore Williamson's playing privileges on the PGA Tour.
With his first PGA Tour victory at TPC River Highlands, Hunter Mahan broke into the top 100, leaping 83 places for a world ranking of 87.
Six birdies without a bogey had given Mahan a two-stoke lead through 14 holes. Williamson birdied the 15th hole and Mahan then bogied the 16th and 17th holes to give Williamson a one stroke lead as the two stood upon the 18th tee. After both players split the fairway with their tee shots, Williamson hit his approach shot to 12 feet, while Mahan stuck his seven feet from the pin. Williamson then missed his putt for the win and Mahan made his to force the playoff.
Playing the 18th hole once again, and it looked as if it was a classic case of déjà vu all over again. Both players hit drivers right down the middle. Williamson then hit his approach to 7 feet and Mahan answered once again by sticking his approach to about 2 feet from the pin. Williamson, with almost the same putt as the previous hole, once again missed, and Mahan tapped in for his first PGA tournament victory and a $1,080,000 check.
"I really feel like if I was a great putter I would have won by a lot today," a disappointed Williamson said after the tournament. "But I know what I need to work on to get to that next level."
Williamson, who had become the crowd favorite -- no doubt because of his Trinity ties -- earned $648,000 for his second-place finish, as well as an exemption for the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., the following weekend. Coming into the weekend, Williamson was seventh on the Nationwide Tour money list with $153,249 in earnings. Before the Travelers, Williamson had 279 other PGA Tour starts, and his best finish had been a tie for third in the 2003 BellSouth Classic.
"I did what I came here to do," continued Williamson, who prior to the Travelers was contemplating his future in the game. "I had it. It was mine, and he took it away from me. He deserves to win because he played great. He made one bad swing all day on 17. That was it."
Jay Williamson, who captained both the hockey and baseball teams at Trinity College in the '80s -- but never played golf in college -- became the crowd favorite in Cromwell.
Australian Nick O'Hern finished third and Vijay Singh, from Fiji, finished forth.
There were many memorable moments during the inaugural Travelers Championship. There were two holes-in-one this year. Craig Perks had the first one during the second round, while Bo Van Pelt waited until the final round television coverage had just begun to hole out on the 16th hole. Olin Brown eagled back-to-back holes and David Toms dramatically one-hopped his approach for an eagle on the second hole.
Of course, a great finish like this often depends upon great finishing holes, and there are few courses that can compete with the final four holes at the TPC River Highlands. The 15th hole has been called the best risk/reward par fours on Tour by many of the pros, where eagles occur just as often as double bogies. The 16th is a short but difficult par three over water, the 17th has water come into play on both the tee shot and approach shot, and the 18th is a challenging but fair par four nestled into a natural amphitheater that can hold tens of thousands of fans.
If this year's tournament is any indication, the future bodes well for the Travelers Championship. Mickelson has already declared his intention to play next season and a regular date and the FedEx Cup competition should insure appearances by almost all of the biggest names in years to come. The new practice facilities will help increase interest as well. The Pro-Am continues to provide for an enjoyable Wednesday, although a few more big names here certainly would help attendance. And the biggest winners of all will once again be the charities that reap the benefits of this newly refurbished tournament.
"The fans here in Connecticut should be proud of themselves, as should The Treavelers," said Williamson, who captained both the hockey and baseball teams at Trinity, but never picked up a golf club back then. "The old GHO is back - as the Travelers Championship now."
For an in-depth report on the fourth and final round: Mahan Cops First Tour Win in Cromwell.
Info on the FedEx Cup: FedEx Cup Fan Guide.
Info on the Travelers Championship: About the Travelers Championship.