News & Opinion

Tour messes with Texas, eroding a legacy

Writing about the success and failure of golf tournaments isn’t exactly the sexiest of storylines. People in Missouri don’t care about the health of the PGA Tour stop in North Carolina. People in North Carolina aren’t all that broken up about the death of the FedEx Cup playoff tilt in New England. And serious fans everywhere have virtually no interest in understanding the most awkward bureaucratic infrastructure in pro sports.

All those governmental bodies? Nonsense. You almost need a Ph.D. to fully grasp the PGAs and R&A, much less the USGA, and if you happen to have a high IQ, you probably have better things to do. Golf is a star-driven enterprise. The players are what really matter. We root for certain guys and become immersed in the competitive drama on a Sunday afternoon, largely oblivious to anybody behind the curtain. Especially the guys wearing $200 neckties.

That’s how sports should be, but in golf, interest levels hinge greatly on the quality and recognition factor of those who have entered an event, and this week’s gathering at the AT&T Byron Nelson is about as weak as it gets in terms of star power. It’s a May tournament with an October field, which is a dadgum shame when you consider that it was one of the highlights of the spring schedule 15 years ago.

8de67ede-bc26-41f1-95be-f92c59feba01_600x399.jpg
Jordan Spieth, a lifelong Dallas resident, will be one of the game’s few stars to play this week at the AT&T Byron Nelson, a former hot spot on the PGA Tour.

The Nelson obviously benefitted from the presence of its host, Lord Byron himself, one of the finest golfers who ever lived and a better man than he was a player. His death in 2006 left a void that couldn’t be filled, and with each passing year, fewer and fewer big names were making the trip to Dallas. A similar situation already had begun 45 minutes west in Fort Worth, where the Colonial deteriorated to the point at which it appeared to be in danger of extinction.

You can’t do business with Camp Ponte Vedra nowadays without a title sponsor. Colonial ran through five corporate partners in 28 years and was vacant again in 2018, but golf’s favorite investment broker came riding to the rescue, leaving us with what is now called the Charles Schwab Challenge. That might sound a bit silly, but Schwab probably saved the event. This puts it in slightly better stead than the Houston Open, which lost longtime title sponsor Shell (1992-2017) and has been relegated to dates in the fall.

Don’t mess with Texas? The Tour harbors no such qualms. At the beginning of the decade, it seemed inconceivable that San Antonio would emerge as the strongest of the four tournaments in the Lone Star State. Or that Dallas, home to some of the largest attendance figures and charitable contributions of any event, would go from vibrant to vulnerable in such a relatively short period of time.

Or that Colonial, where the membership once prided its shindig as something of a mini-Masters, where Ben Hogan and Annika Sorenstam made history, could find itself scrambling for survival. Or that Houston would get sent to the penalty box after a 25-year relationship with one of the most loyal sponsors that the Tour has ever known.

The way things are and the way they ought to be are often miles apart. For the first time since 2008, Dallas and Fort Worth won’t be held in back-to-back weeks. Not only that, but they’re split on the schedule by the PGA Championship, which further imperils both Texas events. Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed are the only marquee guys playing the Nelson, which starts Thursday at Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, although former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s presence surely will generate a lot of attention.

“For the most part, I think the change is fine,” Colonial tournament director Michael Tothe told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I honestly don’t see a drastic change [to the field]. We now are poised to maybe see more European players because the BMW Championship is no longer on our date.”

Or it may not change anything in that respect, as players from either side of the Atlantic are likely to take a week off between the PGA and the Memorial, given that the U.S. Open starts 10 days after Jack Nicklaus hosts his affair. May always has been a busy month, at least since the Charlotte tournament made a big splash in its 2003 debut and the Players Championship moved to the late spring four years later.

When you get a bunch of big events crammed into a brief stretch, something has to give. If the Players hadn’t moved to March or the PGA hadn’t replaced the Players in May, the fields in Dallas and Fort Worth might have remained stronger, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. Tournament directors work their tails off to produce the best product possible, but they know which way the wind blows.

In an era during which average PGA Tour pros make more money off a good week than Arnold Palmer made in a year, all standard Tour events can become a tough sell. It’s like walking into a Miss America pageant looking for a date. There’s a very good chance you’ll get turned down. Tournament directors get used to rejection, say all the right things and hope for the best.

Either that or you go sell carpet for a living.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com