Nathan Grube’s reputation proceeds him. As the tournament director for the PGA Tour’s Travelers Championship, held now yearly the week after the U.S. Open and just a few weeks after the NCAA Championship, Grube has become known as the man who can help launch aspiring tour pros’ careers, one sponsor’s exemption at a time. In turn, up-and-coming golfers often try to become known to him.
“We probably had 60 or 70 players, either in college or just a year or so out of college, reach out to us [this last year],” said Grube, who began running the tournament in 2006 and ever since has routinely given out his four non-restricted exemptions to rising amateurs and nascent professionals looking for a break.
Of those 60 or 70, Grube, along with Travelers executive VP and chief administrative officer Andy Bessette and others on the tournament team, whittled the names down to an impressive foursome for this week’s event: Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Justin Suh, who were ranked first, second, third and fifth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking as of the end of May.
For Hovland and Wolff, college teammates at Oklahoma State who just finished their junior and sophomore years, respectively, the start this week at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., will mark their professional debuts. Hovland, a 21-year-old from Norway who won the U.S. Amateur last August, had a tremendous send-off to the pros last week, earning low-amateur honors with a tie for 12th at the U.S. Open, breaking Jack Nicklaus’ 72-hole championship scoring mark for an amateur. Same for Wolff, a 20-year-old from Agoura Hills, Calif., who arrives at the Travelers fresh off a five-stroke win at the NCAA Championship, his sixth individual title this past season.
Morikawa and Suh, California natives and members of the 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team, just wrapped up their senior college seasons at Cal-Berkeley and USC, respectively. Morikawa, 22, has already played twice as a pro, finishing T-14 at the RBC Canadian Open and T-35 at the U.S. Open. Suh, 22, made his pro debut at the Memorial but missed the cut after rounds of 74-72.
Connecting with these rising stars makes good long-term sense for an event like the Travelers, according to Grube. By developing a relationship with young players early, the hope is they’ll become regulars at the tournament down the road, a philosophy also adopted by a handful of other PGA Tour events run after the end of the college season, most notably the John Deere Classic. And if the player fulfills his potential and becomes a standout on tour, having them think favorably of the Travelers Championship is significant.
“It’s a big deal to us. It’s not just a sponsor’s exemption. You’re becoming part of the Travelers Championship family,” Grube said. “We’re going to make a big deal out of it when you’re here.”
Grube and Bessette make it a point to have an open-door policy with collegians, knowing the timing of their event—right after the end of the college season—means many players are looking to jump into the pro ranks and are itching for the chance to play (especially with just a few months left in the PGA Tour season).
In turn, the Travelers has tried to capitalize on getting a chance to help young players get started as pros.
“We’re part of the beginning of your career,” Grube said. “We’re going to make a big deal out of it when you’re here.”
Among the players to make Travelers one of the first starts of their career are Webb Simpson, Rickie Fowler, Morgan Hoffmann, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau. Additionally, the tournament has given exemptions to top amateurs before they’ve turned pro, including Jon Rahm and Patrick Cantlay in 2011, when the latter proceeded to shoot a 10-under 60 in the second round, the lowest round ever shot by an amateur in a PGA Tour event.
A two-time first-team All-American with the Trojans, Suh said that many college players are familiar with the reputation of Travelers. Of course he knew his results in college events would be critical to standing out from the pack, but trying to make an impression with the way he approached tournament officials.
“I did my due diligence in emailing tournament directors and making it more personal,” said Suh, who is being presented by Peter Webb at p3SportsReps. “I wanted them to get to know me and to know who they’re getting into the field.”
That included a personal note to Grube, who in turn reached back at to Suh and became a sounding board when he had questions about what it was like to make the transition to the pro ranks. “I have talked to Nathan multiple times, although I haven’t met him in person [until tournament week],” Suh said. “He’s helped out … it was an open door for me. Ask away with any questions I have to turning pro. All these guys they seem like they know what they’re doing.”
Morikawa similarly started reaching out to tournament directors as early as last fall, including Grube, aware that there were likely many suitors vying for their attention.
Neither player was certain until the spring what their actual chances were in getting exemptions. The wait, said Morikawa, was an anxious one.
“For me I didn’t know what starts I was going to get for a while,” said Morikawa, who will also play in the 3M Championship, the John Deere and the Barracuda Championship. “It’s hard to think … you want to have somewhere to play. We’re not doing Canada or another tour. I just had to focus on where I was at the moment. Whether it was regionals, or nationals, or finals for school. I just had to really focus on that and just hope that I’d get a few.”
Grube says the first real contact the Travelers had with Hovland was at the Masters. Grube and Bessette were at Augusta early in the week, and the chance to meet with the reigning U.S. Amateur champion face to face solidified their initial impressions about him as a player and an individual.
During U.S. Open week, Hovland insisted that he had been able to compartmentalize turning pro from finishing up his amateur career, and he proved it with his performance at Pebble Beach. But on Wednesday during a pre-tournament news conference at the Travelers, Hovland explained some of the early differences he’s noticed between being a college golfer and a pro.
“You have more time because you’re not with the group the whole day and you don’t have to kind of wait around for your teammates to finish practice,” said Hovland, who along with Wolff will be represented by fellow Oklahoma State alum, Sam MacNaughton of Wasserman Golf. “You’re a lot freer in that way. Then again, there is a whole lot more people that want a piece of you. You have to almost schedule your whole day. You’re almost busier than before. So it’s a circus out here. There are so many people out here. I’m just trying to take it minute by minute.”
Each year, there are a handful of players many believe can make the jump to the pro game, but this year’s class, led by this foursome, has the raw potential to transition quickly to the PGA Tour. Within it, there is camaraderie among them, but a bit of competition, too.
“When I step on a golf course and those names are in the field, those are the only names I’m looking at,” Suh said. “These guys are going to say the same thing. They hate losing to me and I hate losing to them. And this transition for us now not only competing against amateurs but now against professionals, that rivalry is not really going to die down but a focus is going to change. But we’re almost rooting for each other, too, because we want to see everyone succeed in the interest of making golf a younger sport. We’re a year that can do it. We’re a year that’s coming out of college and can make that statement.”
One that Grube and the Travelers Championship is excited to help create as well.