Byron Nelson loses its luster

Once one of the PGA Tour's marquee stops, top players now are passing it up

May 20, 2010|By Jeff Shain, Tribune newspapers

Rory Sabbatini's heart and sense of golf history certainly are in the right place. The sentiments of a defending champion, though, may not stand up to the hard-bitten realities of the contemporary PGA Tour.

The Byron Nelson Championship plays its 43rd edition this week — honoring the gentlemanly "Lord Byron" whose run of 11 consecutive tournament wins and 18 in a season might as well be chiseled into the PGA Tour record books.

"The only emissary this tournament will ever need is Byron Nelson's name," Sabbatini told reporters not long ago. "That in itself is inspiration enough for anybody on tour."

Is it?

There indeed was a time when the Nelson was one of the PGA Tour's marquee stops — drawn as much by the man as the competition. As recently as 2005, six of world's top 10 put it on their schedule, including Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

This week, you have to go down to No. 17 Hunter Mahan to find the highest-ranked entrant. Just three others are among the world's top 25.

Rickie Fowler might be wondering if he received some garbled information. The fashion-plate rookie said Tuesday he put the Nelson on his schedule because it came "highly recommended to me."

"From what I've heard it's a great event; guys like to come back," Fowler said. "I would say for the most part it's been in a lot of the players' top 10 lists."

The cold, hard reality: Among tour events not played opposite a World Golf Championships stop, the Nelson is one of just three so far in 2010 that has been unable to spotlight a single top 15 player.

And one of the others, the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, fell into that category when injury claimed a pair of top 10 entrants.

That's disquieting company. Though the Nelson's predicament doesn't quite fall to the level of the Bob Hope Classic — none of the top 35 — it's some cold water on a tournament that annually gets high marks for its operation and charitable giving.

Other factors come into play. The Players Championship became May's marquee event when it shifted from its March date. Paired with the upstart Quail Hollow Championship, that fortnight has become what players build the rest of their month around.

This week, too, is when the European Tour calls its members home for its showcase event — the BMW PGA Championship. All five non-Americans among the world's top 10 can be found at Wentworth.

Equally underlying, though, may be that Nelson simply is no longer with us.

Players could stand in a legend's presence when Nelson would hold court behind the 18th green at the TPC Las Colinas. After his death in 2006, the field took a nosedive.

"I learned history from my father and Byron was part of that history," said Tom Watson, a four-time Nelson winner and recipient of this year's Byron Nelson Prize for charitable works.

"Do (younger generations) understand that? I'm sure certain numbers of them do, but (time is getting) too far removed from the history."

jshain@tribune.com

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