News & Opinion

AT&T Byron Nelson is back, but not where you might expect it

TPC Craig Ranch's par-5 5th hole McKinney, Texas DJI_0115.jpg
The approach to the par-5 No. 5 hole at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas, which will play host to its 1st PGA Tour event, the $8.1 million AT&T Byron Nelson, which begins Thursday

With a new home at TPC Craig Ranch north of Dallas, the Nelson banks on Texas-sized local appeal to reclaim swagger on PGA Tour

McKINNEY, Texas – The AT&T Byron Nelson arrives at its new home this week at TPC Craig Ranch in this booming suburb north of Dallas with a pandemic-capped sellout crowd of 12,500 daily waiting.

There is plenty of corporate support in addition to title sponsor AT&T and the best field in more than a decade, according to tournament leaders, even with the news that world No. 1 Dustin Johnson has withdrawn because of a knee injury. No. 3 Jon Rahm of Spain and No. 4 Bryson DeChambeau, a Dallas resident, lead the list of favorites, and Hideki Matsuyama, who won the Masters last month, will be making his first start since his victory at Augusta National.

Plus, 20-something PGA Tour royalty Jordan Spieth, Scottie Scheffler and Masters runner-up Will Zalatoris – paired together at 12:33 p.m. CDT Thursday on the 10th tee in what certainly will attract plenty of attention – will be playing in their north Texas backyard.

In short, times are good for one of two annual PGA Tour stops in the Dallas area.

But the Nelson, one of only two PGA Tour events still named for a late golf legend – the Arnold Palmer Invitational being the other – is only 18 months from having its very existence questioned. A disastrous two-year stint in 2018-19 at the Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore-designed Trinity Forest Golf Club south of downtown preceded the 2020 edition that was canceled because of the pandemic. Such is the boom-and-bust nature of most non-major PGA Tour events, and the pendulum can swing dramatically from year to year.

“In 2018 [at Trinity Forest], we had the hottest tournament ever; then in 2019, we had one of the wettest ones ever; then in 2020, we were canceled by the pandemic,” tournament director Jon Drago said. “I don’t think there is a chapter in the tournament director’s handbook for that.”

The move to Trinity Forest, after 35 hugely successful years at Four Seasons Resort’s TPC Las Colinas in Irving, was an ambitious one. Trinity Forest was built on an abandoned Dallas landfill as a treeless links by Crenshaw, a Texas golf icon, and his design partner. The course layout differed radically from anything else on the PGA Tour schedule, and its lack of trees in 2018 and lack of concrete cart paths in 2019 contributed to tournament problems.

“Well, it was certainly an ambitious project to start with,” said Jonas Woods, a Trinity Forest club president and Dallas developer who was involved in the move to Trinity Forest. “I think the players who came liked the course, but we just didn’t have everything they needed to be successful.”

Because of the lack of close-in public parking and no nearby food, beverage or lodging options, local golf fans stayed away by the tens of thousands. So, too, did local sponsors who typically had been eager to entertain such fans.

The project was driven by the city and title sponsor AT&T, which is headquartered in downtown Dallas. AT&T, which is in its final year of title sponsorship for the $8.1 million tournament, has declined to comment on a potential renewal of its hometown event.

But after so much drama in recent years at the Nelson, Drago said he remains optimistic that the move to Craig Ranch signals a new era.

“I don’t expect an announcement from AT&T this week, just because everybody is focused on this tournament,” he said, “but in my many discussions with AT&T, I think they are very positive about the direction of the AT&T Byron Nelson.”

To get to where they are this week, Drago and the sponsoring Salesmanship Club of Dallas, a service organization, had to team with the PGA Tour for an unusual move: leaving a tournament venue in the middle of a contract, after only two events had been played there.

Not since the PGA Tour event in Palm Springs, Calif., then known as the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, left the Classic Club in 2008 after three years have the Tour and local sponsors stepped in to move an event on such short notice.

One unique aspect of the charity dollars raised by the Nelson tournament – $167 million since 1968 – is that all proceeds go to the Salesmanship Club’s parent organization, the Momentous Institute, to help disadvantaged kids in north Texas.

“Every tournament raises money for charity, but we raise money for our charity,” said Frank Swingle, a longtime Salesmanship Club member. “That’s a huge difference.”

Starting in the fall of 2019, the Salesmanship Club and the Tour began to question whether moving from Trinity Forest so soon was the right decision. The discussion moved quickly enough that they neglected to tell anyone at Trinity Forest that talks were underway until late 2019. By January 2020, the move was certain, but the question remained: Where?

Thankfully for the Nelson, the city of McKinney and TPC Craig Ranch stepped forward to offer the Tom Weiskopf-designed layout, which had hosted two developmental tour championships: Nationwide in 2008 and Web.com in 2012.

Namesake developer David Craig had spent the better part of two decades telling just about everybody in north Texas that the Nelson one day would be played on his course. That day has arrived, beginning Thursday.

“I truly feel all the stars aligned to make this happen,” Craig said. “This is going to be the greatest event ever held here, and the start of a new era for the Nelson and its charity mission.”

With acres of convenient paved parking, plenty of shade and dozens of bars, restaurants, hotels and entertainment just outside of the club gates, Craig Ranch is everything that Trinity Forest was not.

The Nelson has been through plenty of tough times since the death in 2006 of its tournament namesake, whose 52 victories ranks sixth all-time on the PGA Tour. Drago said he would wait until after Sunday’s final round to proclaim that the event is back to its heyday, but he did have one request

“I’m superstitious, like most golfers, so I’m not going to say we caught a break yet,” he said. “We just need to have a great final round, with all of our local guys in a playoff.”

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.