If certain jaded U.S. cities can no longer get jazzed about watching the PGA Tour B-team — are you listening, Milwaukee and Reno? — there are people outside the continental 48 who are thrilled to take on the chore.
Even though it coincided with Easter week, the inaugural Puerto Rico Open in Rio Grande drew 70,000 fans and one golf icon: native son Chi Chi Rodriguez, who striped the ceremonial opening drive, then delighted the galleries with his signature mock swordplay. For their efforts and ticket money, the fans were treated to a feel-good champion, 43-year-old journeyman Greg Kraft, who hadn’t won since the 1993 Deposit Guaranty (unofficial since it was played opposite the Masters) and whose $630,000 payday topped his total earnings since 2003.
Still not feeling it? Kraft has spent years battling back from a rare lung disease that he contracted in 2002 but was misdiagnosed as cancer. He was forced to endure chemotherapy and the removal of part of a lung, unnecessarily, all while soldiering on in the game. Stick that in your scabbard, Tiger Woods.
• Don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize this year’s Byron Nelson Championship — Nelson himself probably wouldn’t. First off, the two-course rotation is out, leaving only TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas, where last year the greens were so brown and lumpy, and the moans from the players so loud, that the course underwent an $8 million face-lift that included new putting surfaces on every hole. But weather delays made it unclear if the new greens would be grown in enough to handle a full field by April 24-27.
Concerned, the Tour inspected the course on March 14 and declared it playable. No surprise, the players, who often ignored Nelson’s handwritten appeals, were unmoved. Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, among others, have already passed, leaving Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk as the tournament’s distant-but-best hopes for a little wattage.
In place of big-name players, the event will roll out a Phoenix Open-like list of changes. For the first time in its 54-year history the Nelson will serve beer on the course. Further, the Byron Nelson Pavilion has been expanded and will now stay open until 10 p.m., serve hard liquor and host concerts. The par-3 17th has been converted to a stadium setup ringed with open-air seating and two-story corporate tents.
The most innovative twist: The winner’s caddie will get a brand-new Caddy. What would Byron Nelson do? Maybe not this, but the Bill Veeck Championship has a certain ring to it.
• The Masters scramble is on, as players who haven’t earned an invite to the land of the green jacket arrive at this week’s Zurich Classic hoping to punch their ticket by winning or climbing into the Top 50 in the World Ranking. Those loitering at the wrong end of Magnolia Lane and teeing it up in New Orleans include Rod Pampling (ranked 58th), Anthony Kim (63th), Pat Perez (62nd) and Ryuji Imada (65th). Colin Montgomerie (70th) gave one last oomph in his much-discussed Masters push at Doral, where he needed a fourth to leapfrog into the field. He finished 65th out of 79 players.