Sports Scene

Sun sets on the Byron Nelson's 35-year run in Las Colinas

Tiger Woods with golfing legend Byron Nelson, the namesake of the AT&T Byron Nelson, in an undated photo (Nelson died in 2006). This week’s tournament will be the last at Four Seasons Resort and Club Las Colinas after a 35-year-run at the club.
Tiger Woods with golfing legend Byron Nelson, the namesake of the AT&T Byron Nelson, in an undated photo (Nelson died in 2006). This week’s tournament will be the last at Four Seasons Resort and Club Las Colinas after a 35-year-run at the club.

The 50th year that the Dallas PGA Tour stop will have Byron Nelson's name attached to it will be the 35th and final time it will be contested in Las Colinas.

The tournament last moved in 1983, when it was relocated from Preston Trail Golf Club in north Dallas to the newly opened Las Colinas Sports Club in Irving's upscale master-planned community on the Carpenter family's Hackberry Creek Ranch.

When the event moved to Las Colinas, “Dallas” was the top-rated show on television, drawing in excess of 21 million viewers weekly, but the Byron Nelson Golf Classic was not even televised. It had last been shown in 1978, when ABC, which had the rights to broadcast the event, dropped its PGA Tour coverage.

Nearly 35 years after the ’83 move, the AT&T Byron Nelson is one of the largest annual sporting events in Texas, with a total purse of $7.5 million and $1.35 million going to the winner. The Nelson has also raised over $150 million for the Momentous Institute, the nonprofit owned and operated by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas.

Since the move to Las Colinas, the impressive list of champions includes Tiger Woods, Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Jason Day, Payne Stewart, Nick Price, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia.

The Byron Nelson will be leaving Las Colinas on a high note, as this year’s stacked field includes Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Day, Els, Garcia, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka.

The Early Years of the Byron Nelson in Las Colinas

The Byron Nelson left Preston Trail in search of greener pastures and moved to a place that resembled a pasture, as the Las Colinas Sports Club of 1983 was not the huge urban development that is today. There was no Four Seasons Hotel, no Tom Thumb across the street and no houses on the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf course that featured nine holes on either side of MacArthur Boulevard.

The new locale provided one huge aspect that Preston Trail couldn’t match: parking at nearby Texas Stadium.

“Preston Trail could not handle the event anymore,” recalled Buck Raines, director of facilities at the Four Seasons Resort, who has worked at the property since March 1983. “It had grown so big and it had become a real problem for Dallas with people parking in yards and blocking the neighborhood streets. Ben Carpenter decided at the time to build the Sports Club and the golf course before the hotel. We only had the one golf course at the time, so he fast-tracked the course so that we could host the tournament in 1983.”

There were roughly 200 members of the Las Colinas Sports Club that first year and as expected, there were a few growing pains in the inaugural year of hosting the event.

“We were coming out of a really hard freeze in 1983, the types where pipes were bursting and we had just opened the building,” Raines said. “Because of the winter, it was an unusually cold spring and the Bermuda grass never turned for the tournament, so we painted it green. I remember the pros remarking about their golf balls turning green during the round and they talked about hitting painted balls.”

The total purse for the 1983 Byron Nelson was $400,000, with $72,000 going to champion Ben Crenshaw. It was Crenshaw's first victory since the 1980 Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic in Napa and the precursor to his victory at the Masters the following year.

Eighteen holes were added three years later to make it a 36-hole facility, with the 18 on the east side of MacArthur Boulevard known as the Tournament Players Course at Las Colinas. Jay Morrish was the designer with player consultants Byron Nelson and Crenshaw.

Ironically, it is Crenshaw, along with Bill Coore, that forms the design team behind the Byron Nelson's new home, Trinity Forest Golf Club.

The Cottonwood Valley Years

Golf fans in North Texas are well aware of Mother Nature wreaking havoc during the Byron Nelson and the Colonial over the years, but 1994 was of particular note in Las Colinas.

The 1994 edition is often dubbed the “Half Nelson” as torrential rain reduced the tournament to 54 holes and it was eventually won in a six-man playoff by Neal Lancaster.

“We had just finished building 50 villas around the 18th green,” Raines said. “They were going to be used in place of the trailers that had been installed as skyboxes and when the storms hit, we had people in there huddling up to take shelter.

“Sirens are going off and the tornado actually came right at us across Cottonwood Valley,” Raines continued. “I was actually on the hotel roof watching to see what direction it was coming to radio down and do our best to ensure everyone's safety. When it got closer, we got in the fire escape to protect ourselves. It would actually touch down for a moment on the tennis courts and all of the furniture around the courts and outside of the club wound up in the nets of the driving range. Roof tiles of the villas that we had just finished building were scattered all the way down the 18th fairway and onto No. 17.”

The week was not significant for being the only win of Lancaster's PGA Tour career, but rather because the Cottonwood Valley Course was added to the rotation. The area had already been soaked coming into the tournament and with significant storms on Thursday and more rain on Friday, the decision was made to play on both of the Four Seasons' golf courses in order to attempt to get a complete tournament in.

It was during this time that the Byron Nelson saw its glory years, including 1995-1997, when the champions were Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

Woods' Nelson victory in 1997 was at the height of Tigermania as he was playing in his first event since his win at the Masters. Ticket sales were cut off after 100,000 one-day badges and 50,000 weekly passes were sold and oceans of people followed Woods all over the Four Seasons grounds.

Woods fired a 29 on the front nine of Cottonwood Valley during the second round en route to winning the $324,000 first prize and famously telling the media that he did not have his “A-game.”

Two years later, in the first round of the 1999 Byron Nelson, Woods would shoot the then-course record 61 on Cottonwood Valley.

However, Cottonwood Valley giveth and also taketh away as the 2005 Nelson would turn out to be one of the turning points in the tournament's history and its time in Las Colinas.

Woods’ PGA Tour record of consecutive cuts made began in 1998, and he broke Byron Nelson's previous record of 113 at the 2003 Tour Championship. In a bit of irony, Woods would see his cuts-made streak come to a halt at the Nelson in 2005 when he failed to get up-and-down for par from the left greenside bunker on No. 18 at Cottonwood Valley.

Woods has not returned to the Byron Nelson since that day.

Cottonwood Valley was a part of the tournament ,with the golfers playing one round on each course during the first two rounds before switching to TPC following the 36-hole cut. When TPC underwent a $14 million renovation following the 2007 event, the tournament went back to being contested on one course, beginning in 2008.

The Pavilion

Other than the tournament's namesake, there are no two words more associated with this event than “The Pavilion.”

For decades, it was located to the left of the No. 1 fairway, and since no alcohol was on the course, the Pavilion was the place to see and be seen.

Thousands upon thousands of fans headed directly to the Pavilion upon arrival and never made it out on the golf course, many seemingly unaware that there was even a tournament going on.

A huge tent constructed over multiple tennis courts as well as an outside grass area wedged between the Sports Club and the tent. On Fridays and Saturdays during the Nelson, it was more Las Vegas party than Las Colinas golf.

Following the Four Seasons’ additions of new villas down the first fairway, the past few years have seen the Pavilion in its current location behind the No. 2 tee box.

While still a fun spot during Nelson, the new locale, combined with alcohol being sold out on the golf course, has taken away some of the luster and much of the insanity that went along with the Pavilion at the tournament's peak.

Paul Earnest on his 20 years as host pro of the Byron Nelson

Paul Earnest is in his 20th year as the Four Seasons Resort and Club director of golf. In honor of his service, he was awarded an exemption to play in this year's AT&T Byron Nelson.

He arrived in 1998, with one of the big attractions of taking the job being that the PGA Tour had been there for 15 years and was going to be for the foreseeable future.

“I'd had a small bit of experience with the PGA Tour, actually the Champions Tour when the Legends of Golf first started in Austin,” Earnest said. “It prepared me for an event with fans, but not of the scope that was happening here.”

In March 1998, he played in a section event where the top two spots qualified. He earned one of the top spots.

“So here I was, working my first Byron Nelson and I just qualified for my first PGA Tour event,” he said. “It was a moment in my career that was a transformational moment in a lot of ways. I had a new job, new house, baby on the way and suddenly now I am not only the host professional, but playing in the event. I was not prepared at all, I think I shot in the high 70s both rounds and the moment was just too big.

“We had so many events leading up to the Byron Nelson and I was involved in every one of them,” he continued. “Trying to learn the job, establish an identity here at the resort and club and I felt like I never slept that entire month, but it was so rewarding and so energizing to be a part of it. I was so impressed with so many of my co-workers and how in-stride the event had become and it's over in a blink.”

Not only was it his first PGA Tour event, but it came with the hype and pageantry of having Tiger Woods as the defending champion.

“I actually met Tiger during that year's pro-am when I was on the bag for the CEO of GTE, who was the title sponsor of the event back then,” Earnest said. “It was a special day because he was the hottest thing in golf, probably in all of sports at that time.”

When not playing, Earnest's role as host professional is akin to a public ambassador for the Four Seasons, including welcoming people to the property, and behind the scenes, handling media requests in regards to the golf course as a liaison to the Salesmanship Club and the PGA Tour Rules Officials.

Many circumstances changed the direction of the Byron Nelson’s rising tide. Woods’ missing the cut in 2005 can be pinpointed as one of those moments.

“Tiger had broken Byron Nelson's cut record, so it was kind of ironic to miss it on Cottonwood Valley in that setting,” Earnest says. “To think that would be the last time he came here is sad in a lot of ways. I think that genuinely Byron meant a lot to him and that he was one of the players who would have continued to honor him while he was living for sure and been back. So looking back on it in that context, it was definitely a significant year.”

“There's a lot of competing priorities, the PGA Tour really beefed up their spring with moving their event and that made the change more than anything else,” he continued. “The move of The Players from a March date to essentially the second week in May, which the Salesmanship Club had helped establish over a period of history and which fit so beautifully on the calendar between the Masters and the U.S. Open, was kind of pushed aside.”

Another huge aspect of Earnest’s role was working with the late Byron Nelson on a wide variety of projects and events outside of the annual PGA Tour event.

“There was the graceful way that he treated people and I got to be a part of that firsthand,” Earnest said. “He told me once that 'We have known each other long enough, I think you should call me Byron.' I said 'Yes sir, Mr. Nelson. It was the respect that I had for him and that he showed for me. It was a genuine friendship that I cherished and that I miss. I would love for him to be here this year for our last Nelson and I know he would be on the range with me getting to ready to watch me compete. I know he would give me a tip or two that I would certainly use.”

When Earnest tees it up at this year's Nelson, his 19-year-old son Brandon will be on his bag.

While that will likely take its spot among his top memories of his Nelson experience, is there any other moment that stands out from the past two decades?

“The only way to describe it is where all of those individual moments are important, what makes it great for someone in my position is the collection and history you have from 20 years of the ups and downs and you know you've put effort and sweat and you've had joyous moments and tough times, but it's the journey that's been the most rewarding.”

Difficulty with the greens conditions in 2007

During the 35-year span of the Byron Nelson being played in Las Colinas, there have been many highlights to speak of, but when one locale hosts an event over an extended period of time, there will inevitably be some bumps in the road.

The Nelson that most often stands out and draws the most negativity for those who have attended and watched the event over the years was in 2007 when, in the first Byron Nelson since the tournament's namesake passed away on Spet. 26, 2006, at age 94, the condition of the TPC greens deteriorated to the point where they were brown.

“For any place that hosts an event for as long as we have, in that cycle you're going to have some challenges and we've had a number of different challenges,” Earnest said. “In 2007, we had rebuilt the Cottonwood Valley course and, while both courses needed the renovation, we couldn't take them both out at the same time.

“Unfortunately, it was the perfect storm,” he continued. “We had a good plan for the TPC greens in the fall and they were responding beautifully all that spring until about two weeks before the event. They really just changed and we had some cold spells late in the spring and then it was hot and our plan could no longer sustain turf coverage throughout the greens.”

While the greens stood out for those watching on television, the actual tournament played out like a Hollywood script with a happy ending as Scott Verplank won in his 21st Nelson.

"There's no question in my mind that the stars lined up and I got a little help from upstairs. I just haven't been playing that good," Verplank said. "I think Byron had a hand in this week."

Verplank had the opportunity to build a friendship with Mr. Nelson from their time playing golf together when he was growing up in the Dallas.

"Byron would be very, very happy for Scott. I am, too," Peggy Nelson said. "The friendship they had, it's great to see it culminate this way."

Hunter Mahan's infamous comments on TPC

The 2011 PGA Tour schedule had the Colonial taking place in Fort Worth the week before the Nelson, and Hunter Mahan shared his feelings on why he was not playing in Las Colinas. While feedback from the TPC renovation had been overwhelmingly positive from PGA Tour players, Mahan was not going to sugarcoat his disdain for the Nelson venue.

“They should blow up the course and start over,’’ Mahan said. “I’m not the only one that thinks it ... It is a course I don’t play very well. I don’t enjoy playing it. I don’t like the way the fairways are shaped. It’s hard to hit a fairway for me. I don’t want to rip it up or rip up the tournament, but it’s a place where I don’t play well, it doesn’t suit me and it’s a pain in the butt to play.”

Mahan, who was ranked No. 18 in the world at the time, was not finished.

“Dallas has a lot of great courses. Las Colinas is what it is. Dallas deserves a world-class field. Everything else about the tournament is fantastic. I love the Las Colinas location and the job the Salesmanship Club does.’’

Fast-forward to 2017: Mahan is currently ranked No. 739 in the world and his highest finish this season is a tie for 52nd at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago. He is in the field for this year's Byron Nelson.

Byron Nelson memories

When an event of this magnitude is at the same location for a period of over three decades, it touches thousands of lives and leaves lasting memories.

Colt Knost, 2007 U.S. Amateur champion, has good memories of his time playing in the Byron Nelson.

“The Byron Nelson has always been a very special tournament to me. It was my first ever PGA Tour event and one I always look forward to on the schedule. There is nothing better than playing in front of family and friends! I'll never forget the second-round 64 I shot in 2007 as a senior at SMU. It gave me the confidence to believe I could have a career on the PGA Tour! I also don't mind all the pretty ladies walking around! Haha!”

Martin Oribhabor has worked in the Sports Club locker room since 1985. Year-round, he attends to the needs of the club members, but during the week of the Byron Nelson, he is front and center and there for the PGA Tour players.

“My favorite memory from my time of working during the Byron Nelson would have to be in 1991 with Nick Price. He is from Zimbabwe and I am from Nigeria and in Africa, we have good-luck dances. He was in contention going into Saturday and I told him we needed to dance. So there we are, dancing in the locker room and all of the golfers are looking at us and laughing. But he went out on Saturday and finished the day near the top of the leader board. On Sunday, I saw him and said, 'we can't stop now,' so we danced again and he went out and won. It was a lot of fun, I was on the front page of the Star-Telegram sports section and on the news and we are still good friends today.”

Nick Price's victory at the 1991 Byron Nelson was the second of his PGA Tour career and first since the 1983 World Series of Golf. Price would go on to become the No. 1 player in the world, wining three majors and the Colonial on two occasions.

Oribhabor also has a Tiger Woods story.

“My story with Tiger actually involves one of the Sports Club members. He had this hat and asked if I could get Tiger to sign it for his son. I said, 'No problem, Tiger is my friend, I'll ask him for you.' This was when Tiger was at his best, all the security protecting him and all around him. At this time, Phil Mickelson and Nick Price and a lot of other golfers are in the locker room, so I went over to Tiger and said, ‘Tiger, can you please sign this for my son?’ Tiger said, ‘Of course, Martin, I'll do that for you.’ So I gave him the hat and a pen and he said, ‘What's your son's name?’ I said, ‘Oooohhh.’ He said, ‘Your son's name is “Oooohh?” ’ Price and Mickelson started laughing at me and Tiger laughed and signed it ‘Best Wishes.’ The following year when Tiger came in the locker room, the first thing he asked was if I remembered my son's name.”

Jon Drago has been the Tournament Director of the Byron Nelson since 2004, the year that Sergio Garcia won the first of his two Nelson titles.

“I have so many favorite memories, like Adam Scott's putt to win in 2008 and Jason Day getting his first PGA Tour win in 2010, but most of mine come from behind-the-scenes work that a lot of people don't see. One that certainly stands out is from a few years back when we had a huge hail storm on Tuesday of the tournament week and we had volunteers, Four Seasons staff and Salesmanship Club members there at 4 a.m. to help repair the greens and make sure we were able to get the Wednesday Pro-Am in. It's things like that day that I will never forget.”

Buck Raines has worked at the property from the very beginning, so he has his share of memories from the first Byron Nelson in Las Colinas and these involve some of the biggest names in golf history.

“Ben Crenshaw actually won the tournament in 1983. That week he came down into my shop to use my vise and some tools to bend his putter. Back then there was no vans and nobody really to service or help them like there is now. So I guess he goes out and tells Tom Watson, because the next day he comes down to our shop and asked if he could use our tools for the same thing.”

Another of his memories involved the Golden Bear.

“Jack Nicklaus came to the first tournament in 1983 and tried to get in the gate and the security guard didn't know who he was and wouldn't let him in. He was fuming mad and had to go park in the lot that was muddy from the rain and carry his clubs back over here. He was late for his tee time and he was so mad. The guard was not a golf fan and he kept telling him, ‘I'm Jack Nicklaus!’ The guard said, ‘Then where's your pass?’ ”

Paul Earnest shared a favorite memory from the year that Adam Scott won the Nelson.

“2008 when we reopened TPC, it was a magnificent time in our course's history. D.A. Weibring and Steve Wolfard (PGA Tour player consultants were Harrison Frazar and J.J. Henry) did a great job in rebuilding the course and it really responded to the players directly and what they wanted to see different. The construction schedule was an amazing job with all of the rain they had to deal with in 2007 to get it done. It was literally at the 11th hour that we got the blessing that the course could handle it. We had worked on some backup contingencies with Cottonwood Valley, but things came together and we had a spectacular week and a great champion in Adam Scott and quickly rebounded our position in the state of what we had to bring to golf.”

Gilberto Perez is an event specialist who began working at the Four Seasons 23 years ago on Friday of the Byron Nelson. He came to apply that week, they took his number and called him that Thursday to see if he could work the next morning and he has been there ever since.

He is now in charge of all of the villas that are during tournament week are essentially hospitality suites that surround the 18th green.

“I have saved badges from every year that I have worked the Byron Nelson and each year has different memories. Some of my favorite tournament memories involve going to Texas Tech and North Texas and meeting with the college students who are studying hospitality to talk to them about coming here to work at the tournament. It's great to see them again the week of the event and many of them go on to work here once they graduate based off their experience during the tournament and it will be weird next year when we aren't making those trips. Mr. Byron Nelson was a great person and we all miss him, but now I'm going to miss the tournament too.”

Looking down the road

While the Byron Nelson tournament as we have come to know it over the past 35 years will no longer be at the Four Seasons, it will still be recognizable as the place where Lord Byron's event thrived.

“Byron's legacy will live on here,” Earnest said. “He always prided himself in being the oldest tenured employee and his spirit will continue to live here. His statue will remain a focal point of the golf operation. For the foreseeable future, we will keep the TPC brand associated with the property here.

“We are excited for the future,” he continued. “Our mission will be much the same, but we will miss the golf tournament, I wouldn't say otherwise. We're not sure exactly formally what we will be hosting, but we have built quite a reputation and in the future, we may get to host something else substantial in the golf world. This facility can certainly be attractive to that and we have the muscle power to do it.”

Since so many players on the Champions Tour have previously played this event during their time on the PGA Tour, could we potentially see a senior event in the TPC's future?

“It would be a fun attraction for the guys who have played here over their careers to be able to come back, so I think that would never be off the table because this property is so well-suited with its infrastructure and what we can host and our reputation now for conditioning is so well thought of at the PGA Tour,” Earnest said. “I think we'll have lots of opportunities, but nothing formal at this point, but we will have some of the world's best play here again.”

Next May when the PGA Tour comes back to North Texas, the Byron Nelson will take place in South Dallas at Trinity Forest Golf Club. Like any business, changes happen and when the event got a new title sponsor, they were presented with an opportunity by the City of Dallas to be a part of the project that also involved the First Tee of Dallas and SMU golf.

“Going into next year's AT&T Byron Nelson at Trinity Forest, there's no such thing as the phrase 'We've always done it this way,” Drago said. “There's really no check list and that's scary and exciting at the same time.”

The 2017 AT&T Byron Nelson will be May 15-21 at Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas in Irving.