COMMENTARY -- The Travelers Championship has developed a reputation for inviting up-and-coming golfers to Connecticut to bridge the gap between their amateur and professional careers.
This year will be no different. The tournament has invited University of Washington standout Chris Williams and Justin Thomas of the NCAA champion University of Alabama Crimson Tide to tee it up at TPC River Highlands in two weeks, tournament director Nathan Grube told Yahoo! Sports in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Williams will turn pro before the event, making the Travelers his first start among the paid set. He will compete in the U.S. Open at Merion the week prior, exempt into the championship on the basis of winning the 2012 Mark H. McCormack Award for being the top-ranked amateur in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Thomas is expected to remain an amateur, but hopes to reproduce the T-24 effort friend Patrick Cantlay turned in in 2011, including a record second-round 60.
The third exemption will go to Jon Curran, Keegan Bradley's friend and high-school teammate. The Massachusetts native played his collegiate golf at Vanderbilt, including earning All-America honors.
Curran played last week in the Nordea Masters on the European Tour, missing the cut by five shots. He's made two other PGA Tour starts this season, missing the cut in New Orleans and finishing T-24 in the Puerto Rico Open.
These three were selected from approximately 60 names that sought out the Travelers for an exemption. Among those 60, about 30 of them were amateurs looking for a place to play, in many cases to turn pro.
For Grube, the process of identifying the players who receive these precious exemptions is an enjoyable one.
"The phone calls to the guys who we give exemptions to are a lot of fun," Grube said. "You can hear them shouting in the background, 'I got in!'"
Then comes the tough part: letting way more guys know that the Travelers does not have room for them this year.
Grube can expect to make even more unpleasant phone calls to players competing for his attention and a spot in his tournament next year. As the PGA Tour transitions this year away from offering cards through Q-school and transitions those to be earned only through the Web.com Tour, more aspiring pros are going to look at the Travelers as the first date on the pro calendar they can cash in on up to seven sponsor exemptions in an effort to earn a PGA Tour card and avoid at least a one-year detour through the developmental tour.
Several agents have told Grube that, while this year did not see a serious uptick in names looking for an exemption, his smartphone will be vibrating like mad next year with phone calls, emails and texts.
The Travelers date is sweet spot on the calendar for players on the path to the pros. It comes just after the madness of the U.S. Open, both qualifying for and playing the national championship, as well as the conclusion of the collegiate golf season.
The tournament's reputation for embracing young players like Stewart Cink, Hunter Mahan, Kyle Stanley, Cantlay and others also bolsters its stature among amateurs looking to cut their teeth at a track in TPC River Highlands that does not seem to favor any one particular type of player.
In recent years, Grube says it has become increasingly more difficult to pick players for these precious spots. The depth of the game at the amateur level is astounding, maybe even overwhelming.
"It seems like so many more guys are playing the game that could play other sports," Grube said. "That's obviously great for the game, but the competition is so much tighter."
But imagine how daunting it must seem for a player who is about to turn pro. They know the same competition they already have been facing will be dogging it with them on the next level to make a living playing golf. They know players with decades more experience -- and success -- than them await, too. It takes a gambler's bravado to make it as a pro, a player maybe naively seeming confident can take the next step, which turns out to be a huge leap.
"We gave an exemption to Matt Kuchar (in 1999)," Grube said. "Now we think of him as a Players champion and maybe a favorite to win the U.S. Open. It can be a long time before someone figures out how to make it."
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
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