SMITHFIELD — For golf enthusiasts who remember Jason Dufner’s blistering performance on his way to capturing the 2013 PGA Championship, they know that the Auburn University product is a man of few words. He will respond to someone who acknowledges him with a polite nod, but don’t expect much more.
Dufner crossed paths with Brad Faxon at last week’s Players Championship. Having already received a commitment from the 37-year-old Dufner to be a part of next month’s CVS Caremark Charity Classic, Faxon asked his quiet and reserved colleague if he was looking forward to testing his game out at Rhode Island Country Club.
“He actually said something this time: ‘I’m excited about coming to Rhode Island. Thanks for inviting me,’” said Faxon, who was in Ponte Verdra Beach, Fla. as part of his commentary duties for The Golf Channel.
Even though Dufner and his fellow CVS participants are in high demand to go elsewhere, it’s clear by their commitment that this event is worth making the trek for. He’s the most recognizable name in a strong field that will also include defending tournament champs Steve Stricker and Bo Van Pelt, 2011 CVS winners Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson and LPGA stars Julie Inkster and Lexi Thompson.
Of course no CVS tourney would be complete without co-hosts Faxon and Billy Andrade, and tournament organizer Peter Jacobsen. The trio has participated in all 15 CVS events with this year’s “Sweet 16” slated for June 22-24.
Tournament officials began announcing the 2014 field on Tuesday at a press conference at Special Olympics Rhode Island, and everyone was pleased with the participants that are already in the fold.
“These guys are very aware. Really, this is the only tournament of its kind any more. We used to have Monday and Tuesday events, but they’ve gone away,” said Faxon. “Some players shy away from things like this, but a lot of them want to be part of it.”
Added Larry Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark Corp, “We’re not in the golf business. None of this would be possible without Brad and Billy and the relationships they have with the quality players that you saw unveiled. You think about some of the golfers that we’ve actually been able to bring to the state over the years, from Hall of Famers Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Gary Player to some of the up and coming stars … I remember when Bubba (Watson, now a two-time Masters winner) came here for the first time. He hadn’t won a major yet, just someone who hit the ball a long way.
“It’s great to have a world-class field year after year,” Merlo continued.
The only first-time competitor announced Tuesday was Dufner. Everyone else has been previously affiliated with the CVS Classic, which begins the same day as the conclusion of the U.S. Women’s Open in Pinehurst, N.C.
Nineteen-year-old Lexi Thompson could end up with two majors on her burgeoning résumé by the time she touches down in the Ocean State. Last month saw her become the second youngest player to win a major when the Florida native defeated Michelle Wie by three shots at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first big event on the LPGA calendar.
Faxon and Merlo were able to arrange it that Thompson was able to speak via video to those in attendance at the headquarters for Special Olympics.
“It’s a huge honor, thanks for inviting me back,” said Thompson.
Julie Inkster helped blaze a trail for women such as Thompson to join the CVS party. A member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and 2015 Solheim Cup captain, Inkster was the first female to join the CVS main field in 2007.
Stricker and Van Pelt posted a tournament record for lowest winning score (25-under-par 117) last year. When Kuchar and Johnson took home CVS honors in 2011, they posted a just-as-impressive 24-under-par 118.
“I’d bet a lot of money that record stands,” said Faxon.
Perhaps the biggest change to this year’s CVS is the addition of a health awareness feature. Appropriately titled, “Path to Better Health,” fans will be able to receive helpful tips while following their favorite golfers around the course.
Taking a cue from the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship that was added to the 2014 Masters and produced a local winner in Metacomet Country Club product Patrick Welch, this year’s CVS includes a treat for youngsters. On the morning of June 23, five foursomes, each composed of kids representing a variety of the tournament’s charitable endeavors, will take to the links at Rhode Island Country Club for a three-hole challenge (Nos. 16-18).
Of course you can’t talk about the CVS Classic without referencing the tournament’s underlying mission: to raise money for those in need. Merlo beamed with pride as he mentioned that more than $17 million has been “driven” to local groups since the event’s inception in 1999, with last year seeing the awarding of $1.3 million to a number of worthy causes.
Once again, each player is playing for a particular charity. Faxon is supporting Meeting Street School while Andrade, who was not in attendance Tuesday, is standing behind Special Olympics.
“Not only does this give us exposure to be hooked up with a prestigious tournament like the CVS Caremark Charity Classic, but more importantly we derive money from it, which comes in very handy in supporting our athletes,” pointed out Dennis DeJesus, CEO of Special Olympics Rhode Island. “We have 2,800 athletes in our program. If we didn’t get that donation, we would have a big hole in our budget. Hopefully we’re a good partner for them because they’re a good partner for us.”
The other players who will complete the 20-player field will be announced as they provide the green light to Faxon and Andrade.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03