At the Travelers, the buck stops with its 37-year-old do-it-all tournament director, Nathan Grube
Three days after his breakthrough win at the U.S. Open, Webb Simpson took the mike in a standing-room-only press conference at the Travelers Championship. Simpson would have been forgiven for bailing on the small-potatoes Tour stop, given the life-altering week he had just concluded almost 3,000 miles away at San Francisco's Olympic Club. But the thought never crossed his mind.
"I've always loved coming here," Simpson told the assembled media and a handful of beaming tournament officials. "My wife and I never even talked about not coming. I'm probably always going to come to the Travelers."
It was the kind of ringing endorsement that should have had the Travelers' 37-year-old tournament director, Nathan Grube, fist-bumping with his staff. If only Grube had time. He was the tall, square-jawed guy in the back of the tent, his head bent over an iPhone as he monitored a steady stream of updates and queries. In one message, he had learned that a caddie's wife had experienced a bad allergic reaction. Another message regarded whether spectators would be permitted to bring bottled water through the gates as temperatures were expected to reach record highs. Which raised another question that Grube faced from a local TV reporter immediately after Simpson's presser: Were there enough medics on hand to handle overheated fans? (Grube assured him that there were.) If Grube himself was feeling the heat, it was far too early to wilt. The week was just getting started.
There are few roles that PGA Tour tournament directors don't fill. They're managers and marketers. Cheerleaders and bookkeepers. Glad-handers and go-getters. Like symphony conductors, they must mesh a medley of people, players and personalities into a slick, finely tuned machine -- often with a smaller budget and support system than they would like.
Grube, in his seventh year on the job, has a full-time staff of nine. That's sufficient for most of the year, but come tournament time, when he adds several interns, his team is crushed by a surge of requests from vendors, fans, media and the event's 350-plus sponsors. Even his army of 4,200 on-site volunteers, who power everything from the scoreboards to gallery flow, feels inadequate. "You just don't have enough bodies to manage everything," Grube says. "So you take on the most critical issue first and work your way down the line."
If it sounds exhausting, that's because it is. Grube, a former mini-tour and PGA professional, lives in West Hartford. That's just 25 minutes from TPC River Highlands, but in the two weeks before the tournament he rarely sees his wife, Carmen, and their two young children. He and his charges hunker down in the Rocky Hill Marriott, four miles from the course. The days commence with 4:30 a.m. staff meetings and unfurl at such a frenetic pace that the staffers often need to remind one another to eat. "We're going on adrenaline," Grube says.
That and 5-Hour Energy. Grube says in the run-up to this year's event, he got hooked on the supplement. "I had the most vivid, crazy dreams," he said. "My wife said, 'You have got to get off that.'"
Grube did, though he still relies heavily on adrenaline.
Grube helped recruit an impressive field to the 2012 Travelers, including major-winners Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Padraig Harrington. It's a process that involves countless phone calls and e-mails and a half-dozen visits to other Tour events to schmooze with players, their agents, even players' wives. He fields roughly 70 requests for sponsors' exemptions, granting seven of them, and those aren't decisions that Grube takes lightly. Many one-time upstarts to whom he has given invites respond in kind by returning to the Travelers after they've hit it big.
If A-list players need an incentive to come to Cromwell (see sidebar), the private jet the tournament charters from the U.S. Open helps. So do the small touches, like the time tournament organizers heard that Zach Johnson was a fan of Pepe's Pizza in New Haven. Before Johnson could say extra cheese, an order of Pepe's pies arrived in the clubhouse in Johnson's name. "We try to do 15 or 20 little things for the players that add up to the personality of the tournament," Grube says.
In 2012, one of the event's biggest scores was an amateur: Bill Murray. At the urging of Travelers regular Ahmad Rashad, the elusive comedian agreed to play in the proam, which also featured singer Michael Bolton, UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma and wrestling legend Booker T. As that eclectic trio hammed it up on the first tee, Grube looked anxiously at his watch. "Let's go! Let's go!" he implored, ever-conscious of the need to keep the starting times on schedule.
Murray, in the ensuing group, drew more attention still, a swarm of media mobbing him as he took the tee.
"What's your handicap?" a fan yelled.
"My handicap?" Murray said. "I drink on the back nine."
Grube couldn't enjoy the shtick. He was too busy discussing crowd control with a couple of police officers.
"I'll get hammered for letting that many media inside the ropes," he said.
The pro-am, despite the oppressive heat, unfolded without any hitches. So, too, did the tournament, which enjoyed huge crowds all week. On Sunday, Grube was among the masses when Bubba Watson teed off in one of the final pairings; it was the biggest gallery Grube could recall attending an opening tee shot. (Watson would shoot 65, but Aussie Marc Leishman prevailed with an eye-popping 62.)
The finish line was in sight, another Travelers nearly in the books. But with player-satisfaction surveys to administer, a 2013 budget to pass, and the next Travelers only 361 days away, Grube wasn't about to kick up his feet.
"We take a deep breath on Tuesday," he said, "and then it's right back at it."