IRVING, Texas – The Byron Nelson Championship ain’t what it used to be.
For decades, the biggest names and best players were regulars at this tournament, lured by handwritten notes from its beloved namesake or the chance to chat with one of golf’s greatest champions. The field included six of the top 10 players in the world as recently as 2005.
Nelson died a year later and the field has been slipping ever since. This year, No. 17 Hunter Mahan will be the highest-ranked player teeing it up at the TPC Four Seasons course and the best they could muster on the money-leader list is No. 9 Dustin Johnson.
“It’s sad,” said Corey Pavin, who is playing the event for the 23rd time. “I would like to see this field remain strong. … Byron is fresh in my memory; to me, he is the epitome of golf, what it stands for.”
Although the tournament is well known for its hospitality and philanthropy (PGA Tour-best $112 million for charity), it has a tough spot on the schedule – the middle of a three-week run in Texas and the same weekend as the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event. The lure across the Atlantic was especially strong this year, with Europeans eager to make the Ryder Cup squad as their side tries to reclaim the trophy.
But this event still bears Nelson’s name, always draws large crowds and is the rare “home game,” as Mahan called it, for the dozens of Tour players like himself who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The course also has gotten rave reviews for a redesign by D.A. Weibring several years ago that’s reached maturation.
“I am a little surprised (by the low-caliber field), personally a little disappointed,” said Rory Sabbatini, another local and the defending champion. “I see it, in a sense, as being a little disrespectful to Byron Nelson’s name.”
Tom Watson was here Tuesday, and the four-time tournament champion still has a prime parking spot with his name on it. Alas, he was only here to collect an award.
Former champions like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson had to send their regrets for various, well-publicized reasons. Former champ Ernie Els is at the BMW and Adam Scott, the 2008 winner, is taking the week off after winning in San Antonio last weekend.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo made it to the final round of qualifying and would’ve made a big splash if he’d gotten in the field. A conflict with his day job forced him to drop out; odds are, he wouldn’t have shot the 65 needed to get in anyway.
Still, there are some good story lines among established players, like Pavin and Vijay Singh, and some young up-and-comers, like Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth.
Haven’t heard of Spieth?
Well, he won just last weekend – the Texas high school state tournament.
A 16-year-old junior at a Dallas high school, Spieth was late to the course Wednesday because he had to make a presentation in his physics class. But the folks who run this event didn’t let him into the field simply for the local-boy-makes-good angle; the last high schooler they invited was Woods, in 1993, and Spieth is the reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion.
He’s been coming to this tournament since he was 5 and he’s played the course enough that he won’t be too wide-eyed when he tees off Thursday.
“When I’m out there, I don’t think of myself as a 16 year old; I think of myself as a competitor in this tournament,” Spieth said. “Everyone here has more experience than me, but it’s a game of momentum, at least for me out here. You start getting it going and making a few putts, you might get it to where nothing can stop you. … Obviously I know the percentage chances of me winning an event like this right now, but anything can happen.”
Fowler, a PGA Tour rookie with four top 10 finishes this season, needs a top-five finish to automatically qualify for both the U.S. and British Opens. He would get in as a reward for being in the top 50 by Monday.
Singh is facing the same deadline.
He was in the top 50 from August 1992 until this past Monday, when he dipped to No. 51. He’s already secured his spot in the British Open, so he needs to play well enough to move up one spot to secure a place in the U.S. Open.
As for Pavin, his focus is all over the place these days – playing some PGA Tour events, getting comfortable on the Champions Tour and doing leg work as the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup squad. On Wednesday, he chatted up Fowler and others on his radar for his four captain’s picks.
But he also has another goal this week: become the first person to complete the Texas Slam. He’s already won in Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston.
Although he hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2006, he’s coming off a tie for seventh at a Champions event.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could win,” Pavin said. “The last probably two months I’ve hit the ball quite nicely, and oddly enough my putting hasn’t been where I wanted it to be. … If I can get in contention on Sunday that would be fantastic.”