Cromwell — Andy Bessette savors the cool of the evening hours on a golf course, not necessarily the shots he makes or doesn’t make, but the moments, the sunsets.
A few years back he decided a good way to spend the Saturday evening between the third and final round of the Travelers Championship was to climb on a tractor and mow the seventh fairway. It has become an annual thing.
“I did it just to show my appreciation for the groundskeepers,” Bessette said, “just so they know we love them, we’re on their team. Of course, the first word of advice from Jeff [Reich]our head groundskeeper, ‘Don’t screw it up, we can’t have [CBS broadcaster] Jim Nantz saying, ‘That fairway on seven looks pretty crooked, who cut that?’”
Since The Travelers became title sponsor of the tournament in 2007, insuring the PGA stop would stay in the Hartford area, Bessette, 68, has been a hand’s-on, attention-to-detail honcho, working closely with tournament director Nathan Grube to build the event into one of the most popular in golf.
In 2007, the Travelers drew two top-10 players and five in the top 20. The field that will tee off next Thursday at the TPC River Highlands will include 11 of the top 20 and six of the top 10.
For his service and its impact, Bessette will be inducted into the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame on Monday in Hartford, alongside Wethersfield native Bruce Edwards, Tom Watson’s long-time caddie, who will be inducted posthumously.
“I’m probably the first 15 handicap to go into any golf hall of fame anywhere,” Bessette said. “But I’m probably the first Olympian and first Congressional Gold Medalist”. I represent the Travelers, I represent a team of about 30 people who work year round, and Nathan’s staff, so we have this pretty big team.
“A lot of it has a lot to do with the pride in the State of Connecticut, and the golfers in Connecticut. I know one thing, this is our 16th event and we’ve worked so hard to make it a world-class event and I think we’re getting closer to it.”
Bessette, a UConn grad, made the 1980 Olympic team as a hammer thrower, but was denied the chance to compete when the US boycotted the Moscow games. He was honored by Congress afterward.
The PGA stop, which began as the Insurance City Open in 1952, was knocked off the PGA calendar when Buick pulled out as title sponsor in 2006. The Travelers, which had been associated with the PGA for decades, stepped in and Bessette, executive VP and chief administrative officer, negotiated the deal. He then offered his boss, Jay Fishman, three candidates to run the company’s end of the tournament, but Fishman told Bessette to run it the first year. The same conversation took place the next year, and the year after that, until Bessette finally suggesting candidates and was told to run the tournament “until further notice.”
“I’ll be doing it as long as I can, as long as they’ll have me,” Bessette said.
Bessette has guided the tournament through the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2020, it was one of the first sporting events to return, though without fans. The TPC River Highlands, including the clubhouse, was refurbished in time for the 2019 tournament and has been named the most popular PGA stop in past player surveys. It has also been one of the best attended events on the tour. With the pandemic over, crowds should again number in the hundreds of thousands for the week.
“You know, in Connecticut, we have Boston up there and New York down there and they have major-league baseball teams and we don’t,” Bessette said. “This golf tournament is on the same level as any of those major-league baseball or football or hockey or basketball teams, we’re every bit as good, every bit as many world-class players as they do. This gives us a place on the scoreboard to say, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ I go back to the word ‘pride.’ Pride is part of quality of life.”
The personal touch Bessette uses around the course has been effective in getting the best players to keep coming back. He began by asking players, wives, caddies what could be done better, and has continued to build on their suggestions.
“Never be satisfied with the status quo,” he said. “After every tournament we throw out the playbook and start over.”
Bessette has 16 years worth of funny stories. Last year, for instance, he and Travelers CEO Alan Schnitzer were caught wearing wool sport coats throughout the 2 1/2 hour, eight-hole playoff between Kramer Hickok and Harris English. Later they laughed and agreed to wear golf shirts this year.
Last year’s playoff, Jordan Spieth’s bunker shot to win in 2013, Jim Furyk’s round of 58 in 2016, Kevin Streelman’s seven straight birdies to finish first in 2014, Dustin Johnson’s victory over Streelman on the empty course in 2020 are among Bessette’s cherished memories, but they don’t top the relationships he has made.
“Every year we give these exemptions, two or three to the top kids,” he said. In 2008, Webb Simpson said, ‘Mr. Bessette, thanks for the exemption.’ I told him, ‘You earned it, you’re a terrific golfer, just promise me when you get famous, you’ll come back to us, you won’t forget about us.’”
Simpson assured Bessette he would not. In 2012, when Simpson won the US Open in California the week before, he flew cross country to keep his word and play in the Travelers.
“I could tell you stories for hours about personal relationships and personal dealings with these guys,” Bessette said. “That’s what makes it all so special for me.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com