Mike Anthony: Star-packed Travelers Championship field is something to celebrate and, unfortunately, to watch only on TV

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Nathan Grube, Andy Bessette and countless others at the Travelers Championship have successfully navigated a strange 2020 reality and starting Thursday they will welcome just about every one of the world’s best golfers to TPC River Highlands.

The tournament is a go and that is a wonderful achievement, one I publicly doubted would come to fruition. I’ve never been happier to be wrong and now, in honoring the admonishment I said I’d deserve if the event actually came together, Grube and Bessette can whack me over the head with their big red umbrellas and say, “Told ya, knucklehead.”

The Travelers and PGA Tour jumped through all the hoops, and commitments from players starving to get back to competition kept rolling in: No. 1 Rory McIroy, No. 2 Jon Rahm, No. 3 Justin Thomas, No. 4 Brooks Koepka, No. 5 Dustin Johnson and beyond. Nine of the world’s top 10. Fifteen of the top 20. Jordan Spieth. Phil Mickelson. Sergio Garcia. So many others of note.

It is incredible. It is something to celebrate.

It is also sad, this situation, a strange collision of triumph through perseverance and frustration brought by the shackles of COVID-19.

Because instead of record crowds flooding River Highlands to gather in quiet masses, Connecticut golf fans will be watching players of such magnitude the way they would during any other tournament in any other corner of the world.

On TV.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it …

You understand.

The PGA Tour will be in our backyard and no one will be on hand to see it.

The Travelers will reward fans in ways similar to that of, say, the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi. This is going to be weird. When golfers tee off Thursday, we’ll get almost exactly the same experience that we took from the PGA Tour events the last two weeks in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and Fort Worth, Texas.

All these great golfers so close … yet so far away. It’s kind of cruel.

The tournament is certainly not ruined. We haven’t been robbed of everything that makes the Travelers Championship special. Charities will still benefit. Another chapter will be added to a proud tournament history book. A strong statement about the event’s strength and its leadership will be made. It is playing a part in a sport’s reintegration and we can watch a live event instead of Netflix. A champion will hold a trophy at the heart of that beautiful natural amphitheater at the 18th green.

The event, though, is diminished, by no fault of its own, because no grass will be trampled. We have been robbed of what makes the tournament so unique to us in Connecticut: the ability to actually attend, to explore the course and add to the oohs and aahs, to gather at the triangle, to be part of galleries so large that only blimp cameras can adequately capture.

Fans on site means almost as much as golfers on site. The revenue lost from ticket sales and concessions and merchandise will be astronomical. Surrounding businesses, many of them re-opening this week, will not benefit in ways they ordinarily would.

The sights and sounds of the tournament, because of the fans, always gives me chills. The ground shook when Jordan Spieth holed out from the greenside bunker to win a playoff in 2017. The crowds to see Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia in the early 2000s were enormous. That amphitheater, packed, maybe 60,000 people gathered to watch the final putt each year, is a crazy scene and quite a sight. About 300,000 fans typically attend throughout the week.

This year, well, what channel is it on? At least we won’t have to hear “Mashed potatoes!” or “Get in the hole!” at every tee box, but this wonderful tournament is going to play out without the smiles that fill the course, without the autograph sessions, without fans interacting with pros.

My favorite exchange, for some reason, and it still makes me giggle: Years ago, early 2000s, a fan said to Billy Andrade, “Billy, you’re on my fantasy team!”

Not sure if he was amused or annoyed, but Andrade replied, “I’ll be sure to play my ass off.”

Let’s embrace this reduced version, though, and all it still offers. The positives far outweigh the disappointment of a necessary setup. The golfers are still our guests. They’re still in our state, playing our course, walking the fairways some of us have left giant divots on, carving up the unique and picturesque collection of 18 holes.

They’re playing where Mickelson won in 2001 and 2002, where Jim Furyk shot 58 in 2016, where Paul Azinger chipped in from 40 feet to win in 1989. So many memories to celebrate over the years. More will be added next week.

I’ve been to the GHO/Travelers every year since 2000 except once. I’m typically at the TPC for all seven days of tournament week, sometimes sipping coffee in the media center as early as 7 a.m., always staying into the night as the air conditioning turns the media center into a refrigerator, usually gathered on the course or nearby with writers and photographers on Sunday night to celebrate a 100-hour workweek.

I won’t be there this year. That is not a complaint. Understandably, very few media credentials are being issued. A few outlets are allowed to send one reporter but are not allowed to change that person day-to-day. Someone from The Courant staff will be on site Thursday-Sunday writing stories as players chase the $1.332 million winner’s check.

I’ll probably chime in with a column or two from afar, celebrating and analyzing the tournament in print while internally bemoaning that the top event in our state is devoid of the theater that makes it something to behold.

It could be worse. I thought the pandemic’s grip would remain so tight that Travelers would be forced to move on to 2021 planning.

Thankfully, I was wrong.

Golf won’t serve us perfectly in 2020, but what has? The pandemic sucks, period, and it has sucked some of the life out of our tournament. That’s OK. The golf is going to be tremendous, again, and for one year it just have to watch it the same way we’d watch an event in Truckee, California.


(Mike Anthony is the Hartford Courant’s sports columnist.)


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