Will the Nelson ever be full again?

April 25, 2008

Time was you couldn’t walk two steps at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship without bumping into a big name. Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson. Vijay Singh. Ernie Els. They all came to bow at the altar of Lord Byron, even if the greens were crusty. Now Byron is gone, and so are the PGA Tour’s headliners, giving a once-powerhouse tournament a second-class feel. Only one player ranked in the top 10 (Adam Scott) is taking divots this week at the TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas, and he decided to enter the tournament at the last minute. The Salesmanship Club of Dallas, which puts on the event, is doing everything it can to lure the big names back — a $10 million course redesign that was spearheaded by D.A. Weibring, a Cadillac for the winning caddie, concerts at the course in the evenings — but will it be enough in a PGA Tour calendar rife with top flight events?
There are several points working against the Nelson. The event’s patriarch, who once picked up Retief Goosen at the airport and who liked to scribble notes to players, is gone. The tournament is in a tough part of the year, two weeks after the Masters and a week before the popular double of Wachovia and the Players Championship. Then there’s Woods, who has a tendency not to return to events once he’s eliminated them from his personal rota (see Beach, Pebble).
In reaching a long-term deal with its title sponsor, the tournament hopes to move its dates in future years, which could ultimately help bring back the game’s top players. But perks and dates and prize money can only do so much. The bottom line for most players is, do they like the golf course? Does it test them? Is it pretty? The early reviews of Weibring’s handiwork have been positive. The greens roll nicer and the course looks better. To finicky independent contractors, that matters. After all, while the players enjoy the Mercedes courtesy cars and the shopping excursions at the Wachovia, it is the challenge, purity and beauty of the Quail Hollow Club that keeps them coming back.