Tuesday, June 19, 2007

When the Travelers Championship takes place this week at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., it will represent more than the against-all-odds survival of a 55-year-old PGA Tour stop. It will also prove that hard work and determination can sometimes prevail over disloyalty and greed.

Since the Greater Hartford Jaycees substituted the tournament for turtle races as their chief fundraiser, the largest sporting event in Connecticut has had as many names as Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands, landing for now on the Travelers Championship.

Through all the name changes the tournament became the second-best-attended event on Tour (after Phoenix) and raised more than $25Â million for charity. Hartford saw its share of history too: Arnold Palmer earned his first pro win on U.S. soil there in 1956, and in 2003 Suzy Whaley became the first woman to qualify for a Tour event when she played her way in.

Whaley's appearance, and the buzz it generated, helped the tournament get through a tough year. In 2002 Canon ended its 18-year run as title sponsor, sending the Jaycees scrambling to put together a one-year, $4 million bridge plan that would keep the tournament alive while they sought a new deal. They eventually signed Buick, but the company's relatively small investment forced the Jaycees to raise another $3 million from local businesses. At the same time, the Jaycees worked to meet escalating Tour demands, such as building a new practice area and hiring a full-time tournament director.

You would think the Tour would place some value on Hartford's long tradition and effort, but the suits in Ponte Vedra Beach had their eyes on bigger money. In January 2006--on Friday the 13th, no less--the Tour announced its new, 37-event FedEx Cup series, and the Buick Championship was not part of it. Instead, the tournament was offered a spot in the Fall Series.

That didn't go over very well. Fans, the media and Tour pros Brad Faxon and Connecticut native J.J. Henry, who were on the tournament board, cried foul. Following that lead, the Jaycees decided not to accept the fall dates. Instead, they regrouped and pursued new deals with the Champions and LPGA tours and were on the verge of signing up with the seniors when, to everyone's surprise, the 84 Lumber Classic was canceled and a spot in the FedEx Cup schedule opened up.

The Jaycees sprang into action, and even Tour commissioner Tim Finchem marveled at how quickly they put together a four-year deal, with a two-year option, with Travelers Insurance. So Hartford was back in business, and now Travelers is doing everything possible to help the event regain its stature. The purse was increased from $4.4 million to $6 million, and a $5 million, state-of-the-art practice range will be ready in 2008. Plus, a chartered jet ferried players and their families from the U.S. Open to Connecticut.

Once left for dead, the little tournament that could, the Travelers Championship, may soon be stronger than ever. The Jaycees deserve it.

Bruce Berlet has been a Hartford Courant reporter for 37 years.

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