CROMWELL, Conn. — The Travelers Championship has become known for a number of things during the course of its 68-year history as one of the signature events on the PGA Tour.
In recent years, it has been the tournament that follows the U.S. Open on the calendar.
Since the unfortunate move of the beloved Hartford Whalers to North Carolina in 1997 — an event that still stings sports fans in the Nutmeg State to this day — the Travelers has become Connecticut’s most prominent sports franchise and annually serves as the state’s biggest sporting event.
The Travelers, too, has developed a reputation as the premier pay-it-forward event in professional golf, each year giving out sponsor exemptions to young up-and-coming players.
The tournament has become a proving ground for scores of players who have gone on to prove themselves as some of the best in the game.
The list of the tournament’s invitees — before any of them made a name for themselves — is an impressive one, highlighted by the likes of current stars Jon Rahm (No. 2 in the world), Justin Thomas (No. 3), Webb Simpson (No. 5) and Patrick Cantlay (No. 7).
The tournament last year invited Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff — all minutes out of college — into the field. All three already are PGA Tour winners and figure to be the core of the sport for the next decade.
Because of the Travelers’ unique history in paying it forward, it should come as little surprise that, through the first two rounds at TPC River Highlands, Will Gordon — one of those youngsters who was given a spot in the field this week despite having no playing status — is a mere shot out of the lead.
Gordon stormed to an 8-under 62 on Friday to get to 12-under and sits just one shot behind leader Phil Mickelson, who has 44 career wins to Gordon’s 22 career rounds on the PGA Tour.
Who is Will Gordon?
Full disclosure: I had to look him up when I saw his name begin to shoot up the leaderboard.
He’s a 23-year-old who was the 2019 SEC Player of the Year while playing at Vanderbilt before turning pro last year. This week is his eighth PGA Tour event.
He’s a member of the Mackenzie Tour, a minor-league mini-tour that had its entire schedule canceled by the COVID-19 crisis. With no status on the PGA Tour or Korn Ferry Tour, Gordon’s tournament play is at the mercy of getting sponsor exemptions or surviving Monday qualifiers.
“Nathan Grube and Andy Bessette have had a long history of giving young guys opportunities,’’ Gordon said of the tournament director and VP and chief administrative officer for Travelers. “For those guys to take a chance on me and believe in me means the world. Last summer when I was up in Canada [playing the Mackenzie Tour], there were guys down here my age getting starts, and they were able to take advantage.
“I was really excited and thankful to have the opportunity this year and looking forward to taking advantage.’’
So far, so good.
Since the 1996 Travelers and including this week, 77 of the 98 sponsor invites have been given to players with fewer than 15 PGA Tour starts, and 32 of those 77 were given either their very first Tour start or their first start as a professional.
“You can’t measure yourself when you’re playing in college or amateur golf,” Rahm said. “It’s just kind of eye-opening to see at what level you’re at. Experience is something you can never take back; it’s invaluable.
“Not many sports can do that. It’s not like you can go into a professional football game and just play for a half and learn how things are going.’’
Thomas said the experience that 2013 Travelers invite gave him as an amateur accelerated his process in turning pro.
“I became more comfortable, and it’s because of playing in [the Travelers] that I turned pro when I did,’’ Thomas said. “If I wouldn’t have had [that experience], I wouldn’t have known how comfortable I felt in the professional setting and then I probably wouldn’t have turned pro as early as I did.’’
Cantlay called the opportunities Travelers has given to young players “an investment in those guys, to get those guys to come on property and show them how good Travelers is at putting on a tournament.’’
“Then,’’ Cantlay went on, “hopefully they come back year after year.’’
That’s called full circle. Travelers pays it forward and the players pay it back.