Plenty of Drama at the Nelson

By Mercer BaggsApril 30, 2007, 4:00 pm
This years EDS Byron Nelson Championship will test the old adage Its not how you start; its how you finish.
 
To be certain, this event had a wonderful conclusion. It wasnt overly dramatic and its defining moment was an up-and-down from the bunker for par on 17. But it had a most appropriate winner in Scott Verplank.
 
Verplank has been longing for a PGA TOUR win for quite a long time, nearly seven full years to be precise.
 
Scott Verplank
Scott Verplank reacts to his victory at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. (WireImage)
Hes wanted to win this particular event for more than two decades.
 
By now youre probably familiar with Verplanks history with the late Byron Nelson. If not, heres a bit of background: The two met when Verplank, once a standard bearer for the tournament, was a teen, a golfing prodigy in the Dallas area. He and Mr. Nelson played a few practice rounds together and developed a friendship. Nelson, who just enjoyed watching Verplank hit balls on the range, would often send him notes of encouragement throughout his career.
 
Those notes were something special to Verplank. The sailing hasnt always been so smooth for him and friendly words, from a legend no less, were always embraced.
 
After winning the 1985 Western Open as an amateur at Oklahoma State and the 88 Buick Open as a professional, Verplank didnt taste victory again until 2000.
 
He won again at the 2001 Canadian Open, but had been winless until this past week. On a personal level, he was diagnosed with diabetes at age 9.
 
All that frustration and disappointment, though, was cast aside after a nervous 2-footer for par fell on the 72nd hole Sunday. Verplank, reminding of Ben Crenshaw when he tapped in for victory in the 1995 Masters in the wake of his long-time teacher Harvey Penicks death, crouched down, overcome by emotion, buried his head in his hands and then looked heavenward.
 
I just kept saying, Oh my gosh! I can't believe it! I couldn't believe that it happened. It was a dream,' Verplank said. 'Then I looked up and said, Thank you. Incredible.
 
And that is how Scott Verplank brought down the curtain at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship.
 
There was, however, plenty of drama before the curtain was even raised.
 
Phil Mickelson missed his Wednesday pro-am tee time because inclement weather prevented him from flying Tuesday night out of Little Rock, Ark., where he had flown to do a charity event after checking in at the Byron Nelson.
 
The PGA TOUR has ' what was thought to be ' a fairly strict policy that states if you dont play in the pro-am, you cant play in the tournament. The TOUR reserves the right to make exceptions and they did so with Mickelson, citing extenuating circumstances.
 
Well, this just seemed to aggravate some in the field more so than being stuck in a room full of gnats.
 
I would say 100 percent of the players, except for Phil, think he shouldn't be here, 2003 PGA champion Shaun Micheel was quoted as saying in the PA Sports Ticker.
 
Last year, according to the story, Micheel missed his pro-am in Reno because he was throwing up in the locker room shortly before his tee time. He was allowed to play in the tournament, but was fined $7,600.
 
The story added that Micheel fired off an e-mail to TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem and he expects the issue to be a popular topic when Finchem hosts a players meeting Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., site of this weeks Wachovia Championship.
 
Micheel was joined in his protest by the likes of TOUR winners Robert Allenby and Rod Pampling. They claimed that Retief Goosen wasnt given any special treatment a couple of years ago, so why should Mickelson be favored?
 
In 2005, Goosen was asked to leave the Nissan Open when he overslept and missed his pro-am tee time by a few minutes.
 
Its easy to see the difference between the two. For one, Mickelson was thwarted by Mother Nature; Goosen had only himself to blame. Two, the Nissan Open field had a host of high profile names, including Tiger Woods. This years Byron Nelson had only two of the top-10 players in the world, and no Tiger Woods.
 
TOUR ' and tournament ' officials obviously didnt want to see one of those two, Vijay Singh being the other, exit town before the start (and take the chance that Mickelson might never return).
 
Does that make it right? Of course not. Mickelson travels on a personal jet. He doesnt have to wait for a scheduled commercial flight. If he wanted to make the pro-am time, he could have made it, even if it was at 7:00 a.m. After all, he was only flying from Arkansas to Texas.
 
Added Micheel: A friend of mine playing the pro-am flew in (from Memphis) at 1:30 in the morning. Memphis and Little Rock are 100 miles apart.
 
While players in the field were griping about Mickelson, the media was griping about the quality of the players in the field.
 
Many writers and media types blasted those who did not participate this year, the first such tournament without its namesake. None received more slings and arrows than did Tiger.
 
Woods abhors playing competitively three weeks in a row. And since he is competing in this weeks Wachovia and the following weeks PLAYERS Championship, he opted to skip out on the Nelson.
 
That didnt sit well with many of the locals, and even some national press. They felt that Woods, in particular, should have paid respect to Nelson by playing his tournament, the same event that gave him a sponsors exemption as an amateur in 1993.
 
I understand that Woods wants to be as fresh as possible for all of the big events, i.e. THE PLAYERS. But hes the fittest golfer on the planet, not to mention the best. How exhausting can it be to play three weeks straight? Hes playing golf, not running successive marathons.
 
Still, I dont think that he deserves to be admonished for not playing this past week. Woods owes nothing to anyone who ever gave him a sponsors exemption as an amateur or when he first turned professional. He wasnt some anonymous player for whom officials did a huge favor. If anything, tournaments benefited by Tigers presence.
 
Woods had played in every Nelson event but one from 1997-2005 (he skipped it last year due to the death of his father), winning in 97. While it might have been a nice tribute if Woods had played this year as well, hes certainly contributed plenty to this one event.
 
The third major complaint this past week involved the conditions of the greens on the host TPC Las Colinas course. The venue is about to undergo a reported $6.8 million renovation and will play host to all four rounds (Cottonwood Valley has hosted one of the first two rounds each of the last 14 years) beginning in 2008.
 
Players, however, wished they would have played all four rounds this year at Cottonwood, where the greens were actually green. Well before Sunday, the putting surfaces at Las Colinas were more fried than Reverend Jim Ignatowski.
 
And so that was how the 2007 EDS Byron Nelson Championship began: a Phil fallout; a target on Tigers back; and a bunch of bumpy baked, brown greens.
 
It ended with a Verplank victory; a drop to the knees; and a gaze above.
 
At least for one man, nothing that preceded the conclusion -- not days before, nor years, nor decades -- mattered, with the exception of one particular relationship with a good friend who has since passed away.
 
'There's no question in my mind that the stars lined up and I got a little help from upstairs. I just haven't been playing that good,' Verplank said. 'I think Byron had a hand in this week.'
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs
 
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