Byron Nelson is remembered as the golfer who once took the guesswork out of picking a winner on the PGA Tour. He won 18 of 35 tournaments, including 11 in a row, in 1945, a streak not even Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods could match.
As the pros prepare for this week’s HP Byron Nelson Championship at TPC Four Seasons, we could not be further from ’45. This is the age of parity, when 13 different players have won the last 13 majors, when the presence of a big name in the field, such as Phil Mickelson at the Nelson this week, is usually just a red herring. (Mickelson is playing for the first time since ’07.)
Mickelson is ranked 10th in the world and is one of two top-10 players in the Nelson field, the other being fifth-ranked Matt Kuchar, who of course is coming off the biggest win of his career at the Players Championship last weekend.
Still, any number of players could wind up hoisting the trophy this Sunday in Dallas, just like golf’s other two big tournaments this week, both of them match-play events, which are notorious for their unpredictability.
The LPGA features the Sybase Match Play Championship at Hamilton Farm Golf Club in Gladstone, N.J., which figures to draw plenty of fans from nearby New York City. Top-ranked Yani Tseng will face Jeong Jang in a first-round match Thursday. Tseng has three victories this year, when her worst finish has been a tie for 10th place, but she sums up match play perfectly: “Sometimes you need a little luck.”
In preparation for the match play at the soggy, 6,553-yard, par-72 Hamilton Farm, Tseng has been working on her game and also playing pickup basketball with her trainer. In last year’s final, Suzann Pettersen beat Cristie Kerr with a birdie on the 18th hole.
The European tour gives us the 24-man, round-robin Volvo World Match Play at Finca Cortesin in Spain. Ian Poulter, who faded to a T25 after opening with a 65 at TPC Sawgrass last week, is the defending champion and will play in a pod that also features young Tom Lewis and Australian John Senden. Brandt Snedeker, the lone American, is in a group with Thomas Bjorn and Branden Grace.
Martin Kaymer is the No. 1 seed at the Volvo, which also will feature recent major winners Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell.
The forecast for the Byron Nelson calls for sustained winds, which is one of many reasons you wouldn’t want to get too smug predicting a winner. Adam Scott is in the field; he won in ’08. Jason Dufner, one of the hottest players on Tour this season, tied for eighth last year. Jason Day, who has gone strangely quiet this season, won in 2010 and finished fifth a year ago.
Others in the field include Louis Oosthuizen, who looked like a world-beater only a month ago; Carl Pettersson, already a winner this year and coming off back-to-back 69s and a T10 at the Players; Mr. Mustache Johnson Wagner; defending champion Keegan Bradley; Rookie of the Year candidate John Huh; and Ernie Els.
But wait! What about Spencer Levin? He’s coming off a final-round 69 that included an 18th-hole double-bogey at TPC Sawgrass, where he tied for 15th. He hasn’t won on Tour, but the way things are going that means virtually nothing. Bradley hadn’t even played in a major when he won his first, the PGA Championship, last August. Kuchar was known as a cheerful top-10 machine, and looked shaky as recently as last Saturday, when he rinsed his tee ball on 17. Now look at him.
Tiger is only occasionally still Tiger, and the same goes for Phil. We still don’t know how much to invest in Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy. The talent is turning over on Tour, and the competitive landscape is shifting with every shot. Just ask Bradley. A year ago he hadn’t won anything, and as he signed autographs for the fans, they couldn’t help asking, “Who are you?”
“It was just a completely different time,” Bradley said.
Even more amazing is that Bradley almost didn’t even play the Nelson last year. He’d originally thought he should play Colonial and skip the Nelson, but his veteran caddie, Steve (Pepsi) Hale, told Bradley he had it backward, that with his style of play he should commit to the Nelson and skip Colonial and its smaller golf course.
“Pepsi knew something I didn't,” said Bradley, who has since become one of America’s top Ryder Cup prospects, “and thank God he convinced me to do it.”
Parity means the tiniest thing, or what seems like a small thing, can have a big impact. Bradley admits the Nelson “might have set up my whole career.” What will it be this week? Maybe 2004 British Open champion Todd Hamilton, an HP sponsor’s exemption who has been playing in Europe, changes the loft of his 3-wood, wins, and earns his way back onto the Tour. Maybe Andres Gonzales, the big goofball who keeps asking Tiger for a game via Twitter, shaves a new design into his facial hair and somehow parlays that into a victory and a two-year PGA Tour exemption.
No one owns the Tour anymore, and the possibilities are endless.