The Travelers pro-am celebrity event caters to its regional base
CROMWELL, Conn. -- Befitting its small-market status, The Travelers Championship’s approach to celebrity golf is to appeal to its regional base. By and large, every celebrity player in today’s Travelers Celebrity Pro-Am at TPC River Highlands is associated with the region, from Boston to New York, but primarily UConn territory. That ensures the greatest chance for spectator interest and attendance.
Those with UConn tie-ins in the Travelers Celebrity Pro-Am are coaching legend Jim Calhoun, football coach Randy Edsall, NBA great Ray Allen, NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, basketball hall of fame coach Chris Dailey, and hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh (Geno Auriemma usually plays). There is Chris Berman from nearby Bristol and ESPN. Nick Bonino is a Hartford native and center for the Nashville Predators who attended Boston University before entering the NHL in 2007. Javier Colon is a Connecticut native who won the inaugural season of NBC’s “The Voice” in 2011. Mike Gorman is an Emmy Award-winning commentator who has been the television broadcaster for the Boston Celtics for more than 30 years. Nancy Stevens recently completed her 28th season as UConn field hockey coach.
Also here is actor/comedian George Lopez, actor Dane DeHaan, former NFL quarterback and TV/radio host Boomer Esiason, singer/actor Christopher Jackson, Jets wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, and CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell.
The heritage of The Travelers having a celebrity field goes back several decades. The event started in 1952 as the Insurance City Open but in all has had eight names. It was the ICO for 15 years, then the Greater Hartford Open Invitational (six), Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open (12), Canon Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open (four), Canon Greater Hartford Open (14), Greater Hartford Open (one), Buick Championship (three) and now the 12th year as the Travelers. Each year as the Travelers has followed the playing of the U.S. Open.
The heyday of The Travelers celebrity pro-am, of course, was when Sammy Davis Jr. could bring in his Hollywood pals, such as Jackie Gleason, to entertain and wow the crowd. Whether that was more exciting than having regional celebs is a matter of choice, but I favor the regional group because of how it makes the entire event down to earth, and we can use a lot of that feeling in our lives.
The years when tour events were known by their location—Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Colonial, Hartford—are long gone, swallowed up by corporate titles to aid in sponsor dollars. As a traditionalist, I feel it’s a shame Hartford isn’t in the tournament’s title—I could still call it Hartford if I wanted to—but the old titles aren’t coming back. According to the PGA Tour media guide, of the non-major tour events on this year’s schedule, the San Diego/Farmers Insurance Open leads with the most titles at 13. Others over the years with multiple titles are the Shell Houston Open and Valero Open with 11 each, the Zurich Classic with 10 and the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard, FedEx St. Jude Classic, the BMW Championship, the Tour Championship by Coca-Cola and the RBC Heritage with nine each. The tour event with the longest span using its current name is the Honda Classic, so named since 1984. Yet it’s on its sixth name since starting in 1972 as Jackie Gleason’s Inverrary Classic.
Davis was one of many celebrities who had their names in the tournament title. The celebrity pro-am, invented by Bing Crosby at his Pebble Beach clambake, is long past its heyday. Tour events, especially at the start of the year, were huge fan favorites when they involved the major golfing celebs of the day. Leading the way were the celebrity hosts: Crosby, Davis, Bob Hope, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Glen Campbell, Ed McMahon, and Danny Thomas.
With tour events headed by that group, the celebrities brought in for the pro-am action had a depth and heft that made you take notice, particularly the acting and musical performers. The celebrity hosts gradually got older, however, and faded and were replaced by, well, often nobody but there was Justin Timberlake, George Lopez and Clint Eastwood, but they didn’t really stick around or take full ownership. The tour schedule has been absent of any celebrity host in an event title for some time.
One of the purposes of a celebrity event is to get some buzz going for the main event Thursday through Sunday, and that is always the case at the Travelers. Did celebrity pro-ams have more firepower “back in the day?” Yes, probably. But the scenario at the Travelers indicates the health of the celebrity show is going strong. Fans gather around the first tee to see the groups tee off, starting at noon, and at a smaller market location like the Travelers, the cheers have the sound of a pep rally. Fans appreciate their state heroes and enjoy watching them in an arena far removed from their normal locale. And the fact the spectators can get up close to people they usually see from afar can’t be discounted as a huge reason the celebrity pro-am is so popular and always will be.