CROMWELL, Conn. — The Travelers Championship in central Connecticut, contested on a golf course beside cornfields, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this week, which makes it one of the oldest continuously operated PGA Tour events. Through the decades, the tournament has changed names and venues, but in a small state lacking a professional franchise in one of the four leading North American sports (the N.H.L.’s Hartford Whalers left 25 years ago), the Travelers has been a prized mainstay of Connecticut’s sporting calendar.
It has also been valuable to the PGA Tour, reliably drawing some of the biggest crowds of the tour season. It is beloved by golfers because of its homespun approach that showers players’ wives and children with personal attention, and that in turn has produced a host of marquee winners like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson.
The 1995 winner was Greg Norman, then the No. 1-ranked men’s golfer worldwide. Norman is the chief executive of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series, which has roiled the PGA Tour by luring top golfers with guaranteed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In the span of two months, the upstart circuit has threatened the primacy of the PGA Tour, and, potentially, the tour’s legacy events like the Travelers — which, in addition to entertaining southern New England golf fans, has attracted sponsorships that have led to more than $46 million in donations to 800 charities.
The chief beneficiary most years has been a camp in northern Connecticut that helps about 20,000 seriously ill children and their families each year and was founded by a state resident, the actor Paul Newman.
The focus of the intense showdown between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, whose major shareholder is the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, has been garish monetary offers to already wealthy golfers — along with a host of geopolitical underpinnings — but unseen in the struggle are other connected entities, like Connecticut’s treasured golf tournament.
Could LIV Golf, which has planned eight events this year, including five in the United States, eventually upend or diminish the Travelers Championship and the other 30-plus PGA Tour events like it around the country? Already, Mickelson and Johnson, who were recently banned from the tour along with every other LIV Golf defector, are missing from this week’s field. Mickelson, 52, probably would not have played, but Johnson, the 2020 champion, had enthusiastically promised in February to return to Connecticut.
Standing on a hillside in the fan gallery overlooking the 18th hole during the first round of the Travelers on Thursday, Jay Hibbard of Woodstock, Conn., said Johnson was missed, “but not that much.”
“Dustin took the money and made a choice, but I don’t come here to root for any one golfer,” Hibbard, 39, said. “Most golf fans come for the atmosphere and to see great golfers up close. And there’s enough other major champions out here this week.”
Standing nearby, Mike Stanley of Plainville, Conn., said: “It’s a little depressing to see things get split up because I think it’s natural to want all the best guys playing together. But there’s still a bunch of top guys — I was following Rory McIlroy today and then Scottie Scheffler.”
Scheffler and McIlroy are first and second in the men’s world rankings and were joined in the Travelers field by four other top 15 golfers. By contrast, no player committed to the LIV Golf tour is ranked in the worldwide top 15.
Inside the players’ locker room here this week, Sahith Theegala, a 24-year-old PGA Tour rookie, said the players his age are of a similar mind: Their loyalty is to the PGA Tour.
“I come from a modest upbringing,” Theegala said, “and I feel like the value of money has been kind of lost. It just seems like a million dollars, which a lot of guys earn on this tour, gets thrown around like it’s nothing, right?”
Asked if he was worried about the future of PGA Tour events like the Travelers, Theegala shook his head.
“There’s a history and legacy of this tour that the young guys have longed to be a part of,” Theegala said. “A new tour has no standing; you’re literally just playing for money.”
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The new Saudi-financed, controversy-trailed LIV Golf series held its first event in June. But what is it? Who is playing it? What’s all the hubbub, and how can you watch it? Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Who is playing it? The 48 players in the initial LIV Golf event were not exactly a who’s who of golf, and many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away. But there were big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded to the rise of LIV Golf? The PGA Tour signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined the new tour after it denied them the releases to participate in other events it requires. On June 9, it suspended the 17 PGA Tour members among the LIV Golf players.
How can I watch the new tour? Despite its high-profile golfers and its big-money backing, LIV Golf has not yet secured a broadcast rights agreement in the United States and will be shown on lesser-watched streaming services in much of the world. In the United States, this week’s tournament will be available via live streams on LIVGolf.com, YouTube and Facebook.
He added: “You can’t buy clarity of mind and playing with a clear conscience.”
Joanna Aversa of Waterbury, Conn., who was attending her first Travelers, wondered if LIV Golf’s entry into the men’s golf marketplace might not broaden the appeal of the sport.
“In the past, the golf community has been painted as being very elitist,” she said. “Maybe with some golfers exiting for these big contracts, we might get a whole new wave of fans who feel more comfortable because they don’t have to know all the top people and things like that. They can just come out for the good golf and have fun.”
Financially, officials for the Travelers said the event was on sound footing. Nathan Grube, the tournament director, said ticket sales for this year’s event had outpaced the 2019 tournament, which was the last time the Travelers was not restricted by the pandemic. Corporate hospitality tents are sold out. With all net proceeds going to charity, the total donation, which was more than $2.2 million last year, is expected to rise.
“This is a good place to be right now,” Grube said.
The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for sick children that Newman founded in 1988 opened this year on the same day as the first round at the Travelers. The organization has hospital outreach programs that bring the summer camp experience to the bedsides of children at dozens of locations throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. All programs, which are devoted to assisting children with cancer and other diseases like sickle cell anemia and blood and metabolic disorders, are provided free of charge.
“Being the primary beneficiary of the Travelers Championship has let us expand our reach,” Ryan Thompson, the camp’s chief communications officer, said on Friday. “It’s so much more than a golf tournament; it’s a source of community pride for all it contributes.”