CROMWELL — Bubba Watson felt back at home on Monday afternoon in his return to the TPC River Highlands for Media Day, with the 2019 Travelers Championship just over a month away.
The 2019 Travelers lineup is expected to attract 15 of the world’s top 25 players, including the defending champion Watson. The southpaw is looking to tie Billy Casper’s tournament record for titles next month at four when the event tees off from June 17-23 in Cromwell.
“What I love about this place is communication between player and sponsor,” Watson said. “My family loves this tournament now because of the situation with my dad in 2010. That’s why the Ryder Cup means so much to me. The only event my dad saw me win in person was the Travelers. He saw me win the Ryder Cup from his hospital bed.
“This city, town and tournament is what keeps bringing me back,” he added.
Watson isn’t alone. The Travelers won the Players Choice Award for the second year in a row. The award is voted on by PGA Tour members, who judge a tournament’s services, hospitality, attendance and course quality.
Also headlining this year’s Travelers are Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Paul Casey, Tony Finau, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Cantlay, Watson and Patrick Reed.
“Every year we try to get better and put out the strongest field we can,” Tournament Director Nathan Grube said. “I haven’t looked at the statistics, but it looks like right now we will have 15 of the top 25 players in the world. That’s a really strong field and I’m excited for our fans.”
Watson, who overcame a six-shot deficit before the final round to win last year’s Travelers, fielded questions Monday from ESPN personality and Cheshire resident Chris Berman on stage and from members of the assembled media. Watson is preparing for the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black on Long Island this weekend.
Watson said the vast Bethpage Black is the most difficult course he’s played. He said that TPC River Highlands suits his game perfectly. Sounds right. Watson has three Travelers crowns to show for it.
“It’s pretty open and you can see the shots you need to hit to perform,” Watson said of the Cromwell course. “I love the crowd here, especially on No. 18. It looks like a stadium built for the crowd. It’s a fun place to be at with that type of energy. It makes it fun for everyone.”
Watson added that the No. 15 hole at River Highlands is one of the best designed holes around. He added that the No. 13 tee shot is his favorite. He eagled that par-5 in the final round in 2018.
From a scoring perspective, Watson added, No. 6 and No. 17 are his toughest holes.
Watson also spoke about his friend Tiger Woods winning The Masters last month.
“As a fan of sports, to see Tiger come back and win is remarkable,” Watson said. “It’s the best comeback story we have ever seen. As a past (Masters) champion, you don’t want to see new people in the locker room. We pull for each other to keep it to us. That’s why we wore our green jackets out there.”
Watson said he told Tiger years ago that he wanted to be there when he won his next Major and he was. He said he got a text message from Woods the next day thanking him for the support.
Woods won’t be in Cromwell next month — he’s never appeared at Connecticut’s PGA Tour stop — but there will be plenty of big names, including Mickelson, who won at River Highlands in 2001 and 2002. Lefty hasn’t played the tournament since 2003.
Also on Monday, Watson, Grube and Travelers executive vice president and chief administrative officer Andy Bessette spoke about the importance of charity.
Watson and many others were brought to tears after Emma Thistlewaite, with her mom Pam by her side, spoke about her battle with bone cancer. Emma is a camper at the Hole-In-The-Wall-Gang Camp, the tournament’s main beneficiary, and she spoke about how much her experience the camp gave her a chance to have fun.
Pam said she watched as Emma’s dreams of being a gymnast and a cheerleader vanish. During her battle with cancer and two relapses that followed, the one time she could smile was at the Hole-In-The-Wall Camp.
“That weekend Emma got to be herself and not the girl with cancer,” Pam Thistlewaite said. “That was the happiest I’ve seen her since the diagnosis.”
Emma said she wants to be a counselor at the camp in the future. Thistlewaite was given a standing ovation following her speech.
Last year, it was Watson who gave $200,000 to the camp to make it an even 2 million dollars raised in 2018.
“I heard 1.8 and heart is my biggest motivation, and then I ask for forgiveness from my wife,” Watson said. “They said 1.8, and in that split-second it hit me to give. Being here with my dad in 2010 and the Hole-In-the-Wall Gang Camp, it all hit me in that split-second.”
“We needed to get to 2 million,” Watson added. “I feel I’m part of the Travelers now, this area and this community.”
Bessette said the tournament has raised 16.7 million in charity since Travelers took over as title sponsor in 2007.
Gov. Ned Lamont will be the Travelers honorary chair in 2019. He will participate in the opening ceremony on June 17 and will be recognized during the closing ceremony on June 23.