Travelers Championship tournament director Nathan Grube has found the secret to getting PGA Tour players to play the week after a major: chartered planes. The Travelers at the TPC River Highlands course near Hartford, Conn., has become one of the more exciting Tour stops in recent years with auspicious first time winners — Hunter Mahan in 2007 and Bubba Watson in 2010 — and big-name celebrity guests — Bill Murray in 2012 and Alec Baldwin this year. Grube talked with Golf.com about what makes a successful golf tournament and why top players keep coming back to the Travelers.
How will the players that just played that taxing U.S. Open setup at Merion find the TPC River Highlands course?
It will be 10 times harder than Merion [laughs]. I listen to a lot of the rhetoric that the guys use when talking about a course of that length — because ours is a very similar length. It will be very interesting to see how they are going to respond to it. Obviously we don't keep ours in the same condition and they're going to make more birdies, but it's going to be interesting. It's another par 70, 6,900-yard course. I'm very interested to hear how they compare it to Merion: are there similarities in the rough or are they totally different? But I think they'll be some red numbers here that they haven't seen in more than a week.
The Travelers is now known for being the post-U.S. Open stop on Tour. How does the hangover effect of a major affect play at the tournament?
We make sure our event is as comfortable and relaxing for the players as possible. I think about Hilton Head after the Masters. We know the guys are coming off a grueling test of golf. They love that test, but they wouldn't want to play like that every week. A lot of it is getting back to what they consider "normal." We embrace that and we go after the wives and the caddies and their whole team and say, "Look, when you get here, you're going to be taken care of."
That's why we do the charter from the U.S. Open for free. The guys can drive their cars literally to the charter, get on, and when they land, their cars are waiting for them. It starts there. We get it. We know you guys have had a long week and we're going to take care of you. We have spa days for the wives. A couple years ago we totally revamped our day care program because it was stuff the wives wanted. We want it to be an exhale and a deep breath when they get here so that their whole team can enjoy the week. And the guys, they enjoy the golf course. It has to start there or it's a lot more difficult.
Justin Rose had committed to play the Travelers before winning the U.S. Open, but major winners often withdraw from the following week's event because of media obligations and just plain exhaustion. How did you hear that Rose was still playing the Travelers this week?
On Sunday night I was at the airport waiting for the charter with the guys coming up from Philadelphia. Justin had been committed for a while, but we knew he was going to New York and wouldn't be on the charter. At about 9:30, I look at my phone and it's Kate Rose — Justin's wife — calling. Time kind of stood still for a few minutes. That's where you're going, "Oh, man, don't be that call!" I said, "Hey, Kate," and she said, "We're going to have to adjust our schedule a little bit and arrive later Tuesday night and we're really looking forward to being there."
It was great, but I completely would have understood if she said, "Things completely changed and we need to take some time off." Things are crazy when you win a major for the first time. But we're fortunate. He's here. He had a great group he teed off with [in the Wednesday pro-am]. The crowds were really big out here watching him and everyone was saying, "Hey, Justin, congratulations and thanks for coming." The fans really appreciate when guys make that decision, like Webb [Simpson] did last year and Lucas Glover did it a couple years ago after he won Bethpage. It's nice and we embrace it.
What extra buzz does having the U.S. Open champ in the field add to the tournament?
Going into the tournament, we do a ton of activities for charities. We do concerts, we do a Women's Day. But when the U.S. Open comes that weekend before, everybody in the community gets focused back on golf and they get focused back on the field. You carry that excitement and momentum straight into tournament week. Everybody's talking about it. There's a measurable feeling among the fans and a general excitement. It's a feel and a buzz that everybody's talking about.
How many fans will attend the Travelers during tournament week?
We probably have a little over 200,000 who come out during the week. The course is built and designed to handle a lot of people. It's one of those tournament where it's very easy to drive up and we get very good crowds. Friday is a very big day, so is Sunday. You can get 40,000 or 50,000 fans on those days. We're very fortunate that the community loves this tournament and they come out and support it.
In addition to Rose, you have Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, etc., all in the field this week. How do you convince these guys to play your event at a time when many players would probably want a week off?
Around the office we use the term "the personality of our event." We view this event as not ours. It belongs to the players and the guests we're inviting — it's their event. So we go in listening and saying, "How can we make this better?" with every constituent, whether it's media, whether it's players, whether it's fans. I think the guys believe us too because we're out there on Tour and they're seeing the things that we're doing. Back in 2006 when Travelers was looking at sponsoring this event, the players said, "Wow, the week after the Open. It would be great if you could help us out with transportation." The charter came from that idea. Let's charter a plane and every year the guys can count on it. We've been able to get the fields that we have because we're out there building relationships with these guys.
Are you trying to build a relationship with Tiger Woods?
Absolutely. I talk to [Woods' agent] Mark Steinberg and Tiger, and they've made it pretty clear that it's a tough date for him with his event [the AT&T National] right after us and after the Open. I get it. We still talk to him every year and try to figure something out. But we've built our identity and who we are as an event around this date: it's the kickoff to summer. People look for it on the calendar now before they go on vacation. We like this date and I don't know that we would want to move off of it.
Bill Murray played in the Travelers pro-am last year. He doesn't do many pro-ams. How did that happen?
Bill was the friend of a friend. We had a guy who worked with us who knew him and who threw out an invitation, and he said, "Sure, I'd love to come up." He was awesome. I had never had him at one of my events before. He was great. He signed everything. He was so engaging. It was so hot that year his caddie got a little heat stroke. He was really hot and he was in one of the medical tents here and Bill stayed with him for probably three hours, long after everybody was gone. I have a new respect for that man.
One of the charities that the tournament supports is the Hole in the Wall Gang, which was founded by Connecticut resident Paul Newman.
The best way I can put it is this: We feel fortunate to be a partner with them. Usually it's the charities that are saying "thank you" to the tournament for donating money, but we feel fortunate to be associated with them because what they do out there is magical. They're taking kids who've been in hospitals for months and months and don't even know what it's like to be a kid and they literally build these hospitals out in these camps and are providing these experiences from zip-lines to climbing trees to swimming for the first time, and they're all adapted for these kids. It's just unbelievable. They say this all the time that the camp is a different kind of healing and that's really what it is. You go out there and the kids are just so emotionally touched because they don't feel like sick kids, they feel like normal kids. It's an amazing place.
This is your ninth year as tournament director. What was the most exciting tournament you've been part of here?
When Bubba Watson, Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank were in a playoff in 2010 and I was standing at the tee box thinking, "How in the world do the longest hitter and the shortest hitter on Tour get into a playoff?" I though it was a testament to the golf course because it doesn't favor any one type of player. So seeing that and how Bubba broke down after he won and called his dad. That was pretty special.
Did you have any inkling in 2010 that you were handing the trophy to a future Masters champion?
I think everybody always thought Bubba had that gear because he always played his game. The great players always play the game their way. They're not going to play the game some other way. But I don't think anybody knew that it was going to be what it turned into. I could not have been happier for him when that happened, and I was so excited for him and Angie and Caleb when he won. It was pretty cool to see it. I wish we were the springboard for all of winners to win major [laughs].