Organizers hope a redesign will save struggling Byron Nelson Classic

Organizers hope a redesign will save struggling Byron Nelson Classic

The renovations on the 18th at TPC Four Seasons Resort include a rushing, 170-yard-long water hazard.
Fred Vuich/SI

After holing out for a 67 and the first-round lead at the 1983 Byron Nelson Classic — the first Nelson played at the just-opened TPC Four Seasons Resort in Irving, Texas — the dependably impolitic Lanny Wadkins addressed the media by the 18th green. The moment begged for a kind comment about the eager-to-please new venue, but Lanny couldn’t help himself. “This is not my favorite golf course,” he said.

Wadkins was only saying aloud what others were whispering and what they would continue to mutter under their breath through the years. Although the superbly maintained course had good bloodlines — Jay Morrish designed with Ben Crenshaw and Nelson consulting, and it was a hit with members and resort guests — these are Tour players we’re talking about. They had played gems like Augusta National and Harbour Town before the Nelson, and would play Muirfield, Colonial and the U.S. Open after. By comparison, the TPC Four Seasons Resort was as clunky as its name, a themeless journey between its namesake office park and tile-roofed homes built in the Texas-giant architectural style. So when Byron died in 2006, and the tournament got an unattractive date two weeks after the Masters, a lot of the best players, by which we mean Tiger and Phil, found something else to do.

Enter Donald Albert Weibring, Champions tour stalwart and a principal in D.A. Weibring Golf Resources Group. D.A. loved Byron and what he stood for, and tried mightily to win his friend’s tournament since their first meeting in 1978; he almost did, in ’95, when he finished second to Ernie Els. Thus when new Four Seasons Resort owner Bentley Forbes announced its intention to remodel the course, Weibring went after the job and got it. “This one was personal,” he says.

Weibring’s personal touch extended to immediately e-mailing virtually everybody on the PGA and Champions tours for input. Tom Watson, Bruce Lietzke and Crenshaw were most helpful, discussing each hole in depth. Locally based Tour players J.J. Henry and Harrison Frazar were employed to work closely with Weibring and Golf Resources architect Steve Wolfard. The consensus — that from the tee the TPC felt awkward — could not have been a surprise. But the deeper motive for all this communicating was to subtly obligate the players who were consulted, to enter the tournament, for now Weibring is the event’s de facto ambassador.

“I’m on the record regarding our date,” says Weibring. “I don’t think that’s the way you show respect to Byron Nelson or to the tournament that raises the most money for charity [$94 million since 1944] on Tour. It’s time for the players to step up and support the legacy Byron cared most about.”

After Scott Verplank holed the winning putt last May, the bulldozers roared. Then, they didn’t: So much rain fell on north-central Texas that 67 days were lost in the middle of the wall-to-wall remodeling. With its fairways stripped for regrading, the course was mud, bringing a gloomy mood to the twice-weekly conference calls between Weibring and as many as 50 others with a stake in the project.

About $10 million and many sunny days later, the TPC Four Seasons Resort is a smoother, less cluttered course. Weibring and Wolfard went old school: square tees; closely mown chipping areas around smaller, more undulating greens; better frames for those greens. The trouble is in the ground, not on it. Gone are all the humps and bumps, and in their place are flash-faced, amoeba-shaped bunkers. The bright white sand therein is a special blend of Sure Play and Premier White invented by John Cunningham, the course superintendent. Half a dozen fairways were regraded — the most subtle but significant answer to the unease from the tees. Trees were rearranged rather than added, the biggest of them being lifted from one place to another with the world’s largest tree spade. They can transplant a tree that has a 20-inch trunk with that sucker.

“D.A. always uses the word clean to describe what we wanted here,” says Wolfard, who worked for Jack Nicklaus before joining Weibring 10 years ago. “I think we achieved that. We have guides or goal posts left and right — trees, bunkers, hazards, high and low. On the tee you’ll know what choices you have. You may not like them, but the options are very clear.”

On a preopening walking tour of the course, Weibring spelled out another word that guided his hand. “F-U-N,” he said. “We want the driver back in the players’ hands. We want them to aim at the pin. On 17 [a par-3] on Sunday, they’d put the pin on the right, behind the water, and we were hitting three-irons out to the side and trying to make a four- or five-footer for par. No drama.”

Dramatic fun will presumably visit 17 this week. At 198 yards from the tips, the downhill hole is a bit shorter than it was, the green slightly more accepting. And with enhancements in the amphitheater seating (and beer and wine for sale on the course for the first time), Sunday on 17 at the Nelson may have the giddy feel of an autumn Sunday at Texas Stadium.

Assuming they survive 17, the players will face an amazing water feature emerging from the earth 252 yards out from the back tee on 18. This 170-yard-long series of four waterfalls is not a place to pause and compose haiku, but a 4,000-gallons-a-minute gusher. TPC Four Seasons Falls is so visually arresting that it’s likely to become the signature of the place, but it looks as if it might be easy to avoid for the best players in the land. Maybe there should be another tee farther to the left. Who knows? No one played the place until April 19 per order of the Tour, which wanted the course pristine. Said Henry during a walkabout on March 25, “These will be probably the best-conditioned fairways we play on this year.”

They had better be — the future of the event at this site depends on the success of the redesign.

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