June 30-- HARTFORD, Conn.-Amid more uncertainty than the tournament had ever needed to plan around, the Travelers Championship still managed to have it all.
The on-course product was top-notch. Dustin Johnson, the world's sixth-ranked golfer, and Kevin Streelman, the 2014 Travelers champion, provided enough late drama on Sunday to keep those watching at home enthralled.
Phil Mickelson, one of the biggest names in the sport's history, looked like the lefty of old on Friday, shooting a 7-under-par 63 and rising to the top of the leaderboard. Will Gordon, a 23-year-old Vanderbilt alum with no PGA Tour card, played his way into a temporary card, with unlimited sponsors exemptions for the rest of the season. Mackenzie Hughes shot the tournament's third-ever 10-under-par 60 on Thursday, and drained jaw-dropping putts on his final two holes Sunday to tie Gordon for third.
Not bad for a tournament that wasn't even guaranteed to happen a few months back.
"It was exactly how we planned it," tournament director Nathan Grube said with a laugh. "I can't believe you think we'd plan anything different?"
Grube, who's run the tournament since 2005, has said before that it's up to the staff to give the players the opportunity to play the way they did last week.
Despite so much of the build-up being different, the Travelers Championship was able to do so once again.
The third event since the PGA Tour restarted, the tournament was held without spectators due to COVID-19 restrictions. The crowd is often one of the biggest appeals of the tournament to players. As many golfers said this past week, walking up the 18th hole without a gallery was, more than anything, a little disappointing.
Even without a raucous Sunday gallery cheering Johnson on, he and Streelman's play allowed for drama until the very final hole.
"It was definitely strange playing with no fans, but you still can feel the pressure," Johnson said. "You still can feel how important a golf tournament it is, and you're coming down the stretch, to me it felt the same, whether it was a million fans or zero."
Grube told The Courant on Tuesday that with the help of the tour, he and his staff were able to adjust to the new normal on the fly. COVID-19 restrictions forced his team to rethink everything, from how they interact with players and media to how they arrange parking, transportation and every other detail, now matter how major or minor.
He said that he wasn't even sure if there would be a tournament this year, as the coronavirus pandemic suspended the season, and the status of remaining events were left up in the air. When the tournament got the green light in April, Grube's plan was to be prepared for anything that could happen.
As the week rolled along, it seemed as though anything could and would happen. On Tuesday, Cameron Champ withdrew after testing positive for COVID-19. Brooks Koepka and Graeme McDowell withdrew after their caddies tested positive. Koepka's brother, Chase, who joined the field via a Monday qualifier, and Webb Simpson each withdrew out of an abundance of caution, causing some to speculate that the tournament could be canceled.
Instead, PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan announced stricter health and safety policies and Gov. Ned Lamont gave the tournament his approval to continue. Denny McCarthy then tested positive and withdrew. His playing partner on Thursday, Bud Cauley, withdrew, not for a positive test but in another case of playing it safe. Jason Day requested a test Saturday and was allowed to push back his tee time. He played a round alone after testing negative.
Meanwhile, Hughes was out on the course recording a career-best round, and Mickelson was climbing up the leaderboard, just as he did 20 years ago when he won back-to-back titles at TPC River Highlands. Stormy weather in the area caused a 58-minute suspension late in Sunday's round, interrupting the final round drama just as it was ratcheting up.
Through it all, the tournament was able to put on a show once again, and raise $1.6 million for charity in the process, even with no tickets sold and concessions shut down.
"Our whole goal starting in April, when we started this version of what the Travelers Championship was going to be, was we wanted to look back and not have any regrets, or wished we would have taken extra steps or wished we would have been more vigilant," Grube said. "I told our whole team back the entire time. I said let's look back and know we did everything with an abundance of caution. I told them (Monday), I really think everybody stepped up. Everybody."
The Travelers Championship has been a model event on tour for quite some time, winning the Players Choice award for best tournament twice. The show it put on this past week in the face of uncertainty gave the tournament the chance to, once again, set an example for others.
"Everybody was trying to learn from each other," Grube said. "I sent a note this morning to (The Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit) saying, 'Hey, here are the top things I took away from this week.' The tournaments before me did it for me. We were the beneficiary of learning from the tournaments before us, and we want to help tournaments after us."
This year's Travelers Championship went as planned, even though the plan was far from the norm. Still, Grube, his staff and the players, too, eagerly await the return of the "old normal," and for fans to once again fill the galleries at TPC River Highlands.
"363 days," Grube said. "But who's counting?"
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