By PAT EATON-ROBB
CROMWELL, Conn. (AP) _ Bubba Watson’s family arrived at its hotel in Connecticut to find that organizers of the Travelers Championship had left two gift packages, one for his wife and another for 2-year-old son Caleb.
“He got a little spaceship, but he thought it was an airplane, so he thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” Watson said Tuesday. “When the tournament does little things like that, it makes it special for us.”
The gifts are part of a carefully designed recruiting package targeting the families and caddies of PGA Tour players. The idea, said tournament director Nathan Grube, is to make the tournament an attractive destination for them, and therefore more attractive to the players, who might otherwise want to take a break the week after the U.S. Open.
This year, four of the top-ranked players in the world (No. 3 Watson, No. 5 Matt Kuchar, No. 7 Jason Day, and No. 8 Sergio Garcia) and 16 of the top 50 decided to play in Cromwell.
Dozens of them, along with family members and caddies, arrived Sunday aboard a free charter the tournament has run from the U.S. Open since Travelers took over the sponsorship of the Connecticut event in 2007.
Once they are here, the caddies receive wind jackets, free dry cleaning all week, and a party in their honor. The players’ wives get a beach bag filled with wine and chocolate and a spa day in West Hartford.
The families also are offered free outings to attractions such as ESPN in Bristol, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford.
“There were a lot of little things that we did that started adding up to the players,” said Nathan Grube, the tournament’s director. “I call it relationship building.”
It began with a lunch in 2006 when the insurance giant began its sponsorship. About 10 players sat down with Grube and Andy Bessette, Travelers’ chief administrative officer, to discuss what would make the tournament more attractive.
The charter flight was the first thing, followed in 2008 by a new 23-acre practice range. Each year Bessette would go into the clubhouse with a notebook, and fill it with ideas for the next year.
The recruiting, he said, doesn’t end after the tournament. At the end of each season, the golfers receive a gift from the tournament (this year it was red Beats headphones). Whenever a player becomes a father, the Travelers sends the family a baby outfit with its umbrella logo.
“I get more thank you notes from the wives saying, `That is a really cool idea,”’ he said
The tournament also strategically uses its sponsor exemptions, targeting up-and-coming players. Webb Simpson received one in 2008, and said that was major reason he chose to play here a week after winning the U.S. Open in 2012.
Top-ranked amateur Patrick Rodgers got one two years ago to play his first PGA Tour event as an amateur. He got another one this year after deciding it would be a perfect spot to make his pro debut.
“They’ve just gone above and beyond to make me a spoiled player this week and make me feel like I’m just a regular out her on the PGA Tour,” he said. “The Travelers Championship will always have a special place in my heart.”
And that’s just what the tournament wants to hear.
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