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Wetterich defends first Nelson without Nelson

Brett Wetterich
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Defending champion Brett Wetterich was on the course Wednesday for the Byron Nelson pro-am.

IRVING, Texas (AP) — One thing Brett Wetterich treasured about his first PGA Tour victory was the personal congratulation from tournament namesake Byron Nelson.

"Last year, sitting by him while I'm getting the trophy ... it's a special feeling," Wetterich said. "Just having him in your presence, it gives you the goose bumps."

This year's winner won't get that privilege at the 18th green Sunday.

For the first time since Nelson's name became attached to the tournament in 1968, it will be played without him there.

"It just seems to be a slight somber feel about it," Luke Donald said Wednesday. "I walked past the 18th green and saw there was no position where he's going to sit, and it just seems a little bit different. ... I'm sure it will feel like it's missing something without Byron here."

Nelson died of natural causes Sept. 26. He was 94.

The golfer known as "Lord Byron" was the first to have a PGA Tour event named after him. His presence helped make the tournament a popular stop for players, whom he greeted as they finished their rounds, and the biggest charity fundraiser on the PGA Tour. The Nelson is expected this year to become the first to surpass $100 million in total donations to charities.

"He lived an amazingly full life," Tom Lehman said. "It was quite a life to celebrate. To see an empty chair will be sad, but it'll put a smile on your face thinking about Byron Nelson the man."

The first Byron Nelson Championship without its namesake begins Thursday.

Only three of the top 13 players in the world ranking made it to Texas: Phil Mickelson (No. 4), Vijay Singh (No. 7) and Donald (No. 11). Mickelson and Singh are past Nelson champions and Donald has played 16 of his 18 rounds at the Nelson in the 60s.

"To be in this particular spot maybe isn't the best for the tournament," Lehman said. "I would not say it's an optimal week. But I feel pretty strongly that the legacy of his life and what they've started here will carry through."

The Nelson is a month earlier on the schedule this year, now played before Wachovia and The Players Championship. It also split the Texas two-step with the Colonial, which will be played in its traditional spot, May 24-27.

Top-ranked Tiger Woods, who made his Nelson debut as a high school kid in 1993 when Byron Nelson got a sponsor's invitation for him, skipped the tournament for the second year in a row. Woods won in 1997, his first time there as a pro, but hasn't played since 2005, when he missed the cut to end his record of 142 consecutive cuts.

Wetterich has two top-10 finishes this year, and is still looking for his second PGA Tour victory. But he gets to find out what it's like to play as a defending champion.

"It feels weird because it's the first time that it's ever happened for me," Wetterich said. "I think you have to take it as a normal week and go out and do the same things you did last year and two weeks ago, three weeks ago, four weeks ago."

Wetterich will open Thursday on the TPC Four Seasons Resort course, which starting next year will be the only course used for the Nelson. The tournament moved there in 1983, and since 1995, the Cottonwood Valley course across the street has been used with each golfer playing one of his first two rounds there.

After this year's tournament, there will be a multimillion dollar redesign on the TPC course that will affect every tee box, fairway, green and bunker on the course. Five holes will be lengthened and the green shared by holes Nos. 5 and 9 will be separated.

Cottonwood Valley is where Woods played his last Nelson round. That was also where Arron Oberholser shot a tournament-record 60 last year, missing a chance for 59 when his 15-foot birdie attempt on the 18th hole curled and settled about a foot from the cup.

Divots: Mickelson missed the 7 a.m. tee time for his pro-am round Wednesday because of a flight cancellation while returning Tuesday night from a charity event in Arkansas. He got to the course Wednesday for lunch with the group he was supposed to play with, but didn't have a practice round. ... Three identical motorcycles built by Orange County Choppers were unveiled Wednesday. The tournament winner and sponsor EDS both get one, and the other will be auctioned online to benefit charity. The design of the choppers included 11 chrome wheel spokes that commemorate each of Byron Nelson's consecutive tournament victories in 1945. The Teutuls, the father and sons from OCC, rode the choppers to a spot by the No. 1 tee.

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