Lone Star Blues
Tiger Woods made the Byron Nelson a must-attend when the legend was still alive.
Straight out of the box, before it was even known as the Texas Swing and grew into one of the strongest cogs in the PGA Tour machinery, the best swingers in the game ruled the state.
Byron Nelson won the first Dallas Open in 1944. Sam Snead won the second and Ben Hogan won the third. Hogan won the first Colonial tournament in Fort Worth in 1946, won it again the next year, and would go on to serve as the tournament's unofficial host until his death. Walter Hagen won the second Texas Open in San Antonio in 1923.
Stars in the making or those already established made it a point to play the Texas tournaments.
It's been a long, gradual process, but all that's changed. Last week, the Valero Texas Open had one player in the field entering the event in the top 25 in the rankings. This week at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, formerly the Dallas Open, there are two top-10 players in the field.
And so it goes here in this once-critical part of the PGA Tour schedule, where the movement is sliding in one direction: from can't-miss-these-tournaments to where-are-they-again?
The downward trend can be attributed to more than one factor: the death of Hogan and Nelson in 1997 and 2006, respectively; the quick rise to prominence of the Quail Hollow Championship, the seven-year old Charlotte tournament that many of the game's elite players have locked into their schedule. And last but perhaps most importantly, the move of the Players Championship from March to May, turning a once manageable month into one of the most hectic on the calendar. Add it all up and the odd tournaments out have been the ones in Texas, especially when it comes to Tiger Woods, who hasn't played the Nelson since the host's death, and has played the Colonial just once as a pro.
If all of that's weighing on the Texas tournaments, it's not bothering Peggy Nelson, Byron's widow, who took a few minutes out of her busy tournament week to catch a few rays on the roof of her garden room at the Nelson ranch in Roanoke. She said she's not worried about the Nelson tournament field.
"There's just so much money out there, they don't need to play 25 or 30 tournaments a year," she said. "Especially with Byron gone. Some players said without Byron here, they don't feel the great need to be here. It's nothing personal about our tournament. It's just the way it is right now."
Ben Crenshaw, 57, grew up in Austin. His first PGA Tour victory was the 1973 Texas Open and he also won the Colonial twice and the Nelson. Crenshaw acknowledged there's been some slippage on the Texas Swing.
"You used to love it; you didn't have to go all over creation to play. I'm sure now that the sponsors would like their tournaments to come back. Like this week, there's obviously a void there without Byron. It'll always be his place, though; the way Colonials is Hogan's place."
Doug Sanders, who has lived in Houston for 40 years, won the 1961 Colonial. The 75-year-old Sanders understands that players can't play every week, so they adjust their schedule. Even so, Sanders says the Texas Swing is whiffing.
"It's lost its stature," he said. "Now, people don't know how to relate because there are so many other tournaments X,Y,Z, what's the difference?"
Maybe some positive signs are showing up, though. There's an improved course at the Nelson, after D.A. Weibring's re-do of the TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas. And the Texas Open caught a break when it was shifted out of afterthought status as part of the Fall Series and moved its current spot before the Nelson. Next year, the event will be played on a Greg Norman-designed course that's still under construction.
Another plus: The amount that the San Antonio/Irving/Fort Worth events raise for local charities is usually one of the highest on the PGA Tour. Last year, the total was $21 million.
Whatever else you want to say about the Texas tournaments, they've always been a good place to go low and make history. Of the 21 scores of 60 in PGA Tour history, eight have come in Texas, including five at San Antonio. Tommy Armour III owns the PGA Tour record for lowest aggregate score, 254, which he set in San Antonio in 2003. The San Antonio event is the third-oldest on the PGA Tour, not counting the majors. The Nelson was the first official tour event named after a former player. Of the four Texas events, including Houston, no one has won all of them, but nine have won three, including Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Littler and Crenshaw.
"I'd say there's a little bit of history there," said Tom Kite, 59, who lives in Austin. "Texas tournaments have produced some great champions and also contributed huge amounts of money to charity. It's a great legacy."
But Kite said the PGA Tour's scheduling issues have hurt the Texas tournaments … and they're not alone, he said.
"I don't think any of the tournaments that are not part of the 'chosen ones,' which I won't mention, are as strong as they once were," Kite said. "Quite honestly, all the tournaments are struggling right now. They've created a real, well, two, three, four different levels of tournaments to the benefit of a few."
In times past, the PGA Tour had programs in place to raise player awareness on both the West Coast Swing and the Fall Finish by offering a bonus pool. From 1997-2006, there was an annual $1 million bonus for the best player on the West Coast Swing, with $500,000 for the winner. The Fall Finish, which was the last 12 official money events of the year, had a similar bonus payout; and there was once a bonus pool for Florida events. Lanny Wadkins, who lives in Dallas, won his second PGA Tour event in 1973 at the Nelson. Wadkins, 59, won $35,000 at Preston Trail Golf Club and said he doesn't think a Texas Swing bonus pool would be the right call.
"With the amount of money they're already playing for, forget the bonuses," he said.
Instead, Wadkins said players should be a little better educated about what the Texas Swing is all about. He wonders if players understand the history.
"I hope they do," Wadkins said. "It tends to worry me a little bit about this generation. I wonder how many of the kids today understand the history of the game, whose footsteps they're following in."
But the Texas Swing?
"It's lost zip," Wadkins said.
Charles Coody won't argue that point, but he's not happy about it. Coody, 72 in July, is a native of Stamford and lives in Abilene. This week, Coody marks the 45th anniversary of his victory in the 1964 Nelson, then still the Dallas Open, at Oak Cliff Country Club.
"This whole thing has been totally mishandled by the PGA Tour," Coody said. "Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Ft. Worth are all bound in the same kind of swing, except they're not. Tim Finchem wanted the Players Championship in there, and basically told the other tournaments to find another date. It's kind of a slap in the face.
"Some of the players get it, get what it's all about. Some don't. But it's that way in every sport, not just golf. The players today, they say they understand, but they don't really know where everything came from.
"I don't begrudge it. I don't want to lump everyone into one basket, but there are a lot of players who absolutely have no clue."
Maybe that will change over time. It's possible that when the economy smoothes out, the PGA Tour and its sponsors and its tournaments will all find sounder footing. Maybe then, the tournaments of Hogan and Nelson, of great champions and rich history, will find themselves all the way back. Maybe once again, in Texas, they'll rediscover that the swing's the thing.