On golf

Well-traveled Thompson breaks through

M. THOMPSON Thrilling week M. THOMPSON
Thrilling week
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / June 30, 2011

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CROMWELL, Conn. — Sandwiched between two star-studded tournaments — it follows the US Open, and precedes the AT&T National — the Travelers Championship fights hard to land some of golf’s bigger names for its field.

While it can’t match the other two in purse or prestige, the Travelers has a lot to offer:

■History. Held annually since 1952, the Travelers was Arnold Palmer’s first professional victory in the US (1956). Called the Insurance City Open back then, it also drew the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, and Johnny Miller, and features a stout winners roster that includes Sam Snead, Billy Casper (four times), Curtis Strange, Greg Norman, and Phil Mickelson (twice).

■Convenience. When the US Open is held on the East Coast, it’s a pretty simple trip to the Hartford area. When it’s been held on the West Coast, such as at Pebble Beach last year, Travelers has provided a charter, enticing players with a direct flight on the Monday of tournament week.

■Course. Since moving to TPC River Highlands in 1984, the winning score has been at least 10 under par every year but two, providing the players with a kinder, gentler, more user-friendly test coming off a difficult US Open venue.

Plus, from 1985-88, it had the longest official tournament name on the PGA Tour: the Canon Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open.

The GHO, as most around here still refer to it, might never get Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, or even Mickelson again. But we know those names, and we know their stories.

The Travelers gives us an opportunity to meet someone new, such as Michael Thompson. Before the 26-year-old came out of nowhere and shot a 62 to finish a career-best fourth on Sunday, his was a name we didn’t know. As it turns out, he’s got a nice little story.

Maybe we should have known Thompson, because he advanced to the final of the 2007 US Amateur, losing to Colt Knost at the Olympic Club. That run got him into three professional events in 2008: the Masters (73-78, missed cut), the US Open at Torrey Pines (74-73-73-72, tie for 29th), and the Travelers Championship (65-67-72-73, tie for 59th), which extended him a sponsor exemption.

Thompson isn’t convinced he’d have made such a strong showing at the ’07 Amateur — or already played in two majors — if not for Hurricane Katrina. Huh?

When what remains the costliest natural disaster in this nation’s history slammed into New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, Thompson was about to begin his junior season at Tulane, where he had won three tournaments over his first two seasons and earned Conference USA freshman of the year honors. The hurricane took lives, homes, property, and the identity of fun-loving, food-and-blues-crazed New Orleans. A few months later, it also cost Tulane its golf program, along with seven other sports.

The NCAA allowed Tulane players to transfer without losing a year of eligibility, so Thompson chose Alabama, where he flourished, winning the Southeastern Conference tournament as a senior and being named a first-team All-American.

“Katrina, to me, has always been a blessing in disguise,’’ Thompson said. “If Katrina had never happened, I would have stayed at Tulane, and who knows where I’d be now?’’

A year ago, he was playing on the Hooters Tour, winning $100,354 in 18 tournaments. Sunday, with his wife and mother cheering him on, Thompson pocketed $288,000, by far the largest paycheck of his young career. He reached the PGA Tour by tying for 16th at last year’s Q-School, and prior to the Travelers had missed the cut in seven of 12 tournaments, with only one noteworthy finish (tie for 14th in Puerto Rico).

When you’ve survived a hurricane and been forced to leave a school you love, Sunday afternoon tour pressure doesn’t seem so suffocating, though. There was Thompson, shooting a final-nine 29 at TPC River Highlands, nearly making a hole-in-one on No. 16, then finishing with a 3-footer for birdie on the 18th, which temporarily tied him for the lead. Fredrik Jacobson broke the tie and went on to win, but he wasn’t the only winner last week.

Emerging from the scorer’s trailer after signing his card, Thompson was met by a PGA Tour official, who directed him toward radio, print, and television interviews. When that was complete, a CBS staffer introduced himself and said Thompson’s presence was requested in the 18th-hole tower for a sitdown with Jim Nantz.

Perhaps it was appropriate that Thompson’s best finish so far in his rookie season came at the Travelers, considering his invitation to play here as an amateur. With so much going on, that wasn’t forgotten.

“This was the first tournament all year where I’d played the course before. Every other one, the course was new,’’ Thompson said. “They’ve been very nice to me here, so I’m thrilled I could play well.’’

Would the Travelers prefer to have its field bursting with players ranked in the top 10 of the world rankings? Probably. But true beauty lies in realizing what you are, embracing it, and doing your best with what you have. Introducing us to PGA Tour players worth knowing — or even non-tour pros, as amateur Patrick Cantlay proved — can make the tournament held between two titans, on many fronts, even more enjoyable.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at