Nelson Loved nothing more than spending time at his Texas ranch.
Karen Kuehn
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Orleans is known for minting first-time winners, but Nick Watney's slow waltz to victory at the Zurich Classic last weekend contained very little suspense, especially not after last year's heart-stopper by Chris Couch.

So, for trauma and drama turn your attention to this week's EDS Byron Nelson Championship.

For starters, only two of the top 10 players in the world, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, are in the field. (Other luminaries — or close to it — include Sergio Garcia, Charles Howell III, Luke Donald, K.J. Choi and Rory Sabbatini.)

That grim 2-for-10 stat looks especially bad because this is the first year of the Nelson without Nelson. He died last September at age 94, and we now know that it was the man — not the Tex-Mex cuisine, the big-haired Dallas eye-candy or anything else — that attracted the stars to the TPC Las Colinas and Cottonwood Valley courses.

Granted, the EDS Byron Nelson assumes a new spot on the schedule this week. It was held May 11-14 last year, when many players had begun their run-up to the U.S. Open. But given the success they had at last year's Nelson, the absences of Ernie Els (T13), Trevor Immelman (2) and Adam Scott (T3), at least, seem odd.

A Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist barbecued Tiger Woods for bailing on the Byron ever since Woods had his consecutive cuts streak snapped at 142 at Cottonwood Valley in 2005. John Daly took punishment, too, for asking for a sponsor's exemption, getting one and then not bothering to play.

Woods, you'll be happy to know, isn't likely to have hurt feelings. He probably didn't even see the piece, since on Sunday he got his first look at Oakmont C.C., site of June's U.S. Open. The 12-time major winner reportedly played all 18 holes at the historic western Pennsylvania track and hit 3-wood to the middle of the green on the notorious 288-yard, par-3 8th hole.

"I refuse to hit driver [on a par-3]," Woods said. "It's against my religion."

Woods will likely compete next at next week's Wachovia Championship, followed by the Players Championship the next week. But Woods being Woods, nothing is sacred.

As for this week, a handful of tributes to Nelson are planned, including a moment of silence on Saturday and an F-18 flyover. The man himself is widely regarded as one of the kindest gentlemen ever to play the game, and his void this week is expected to be palpable. You might see almost as much crying this week as at last fall's Ryder Cup in Ireland.

But the most soap-operatic storyline of the Byron has nothing to do with Nelson. Phil Mickelson will now be coached by Butch Harmon, Woods's old guru, and not Rick Smith, a longtime Mickelson pal and business partner.

This is one of those plot twists you can't help but salivate over: Mickelson, Woods's main rival, and Harmon, Woods's old coach, seeking from each other a measure of redemption against the One, Woods. Don't you love it?

Mickelson says he has turned to Harmon to cure his chronically misfiring driver. The club lost Mickelson the U.S. Open last summer, and he would dearly love to make amends by conquering Oakmont.

Whether Harmon's influence will show up in the number of fairways Mickelson hits remains to be seen, but an early weather forecast, at least, plays to his strength. Rain was expected mid-week, meaning Phil's off-target bombs won't go as far off target, and he can attack most any pin, just the way he likes it.

On Thursday, at least.

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