McKINNEY – The Pavilion isn’t yet back. But the pizzazz has returned.
And after a rain-soaked appetizer of a week at the new-and-improved Byron Nelson golf tournament at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, the same can also be safely said for Dallas star golfer Jordan Spieth.
While the venue’s first year received rave reviews last weekend, Spieth reminded critics that his four-year slump – and two-week battle with COVID – was merely a hiccup on his potentially Hall-of-Fame resume.
The 27-year-old Jesuit High School alum and three-time major champion energized his throng of adoring followers in North Texas with two eagles on No. 18 early, but ultimately fizzled during a final-round 71 Sunday that left him tied for ninth place. But it’s his best finish at the tournament he grew up on, and served as more proof that his elite game is back for good as golf heads for its second major of the year next week at the PGA Championship in Kiawah Island, South Carolina.
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“I’m happy with how the week turned out as a whole,” Spieth said after a final round that constantly dodged rain drops. “I went through four towels and three gloves. It was a bit of a mess. But I’m rejuvenated. This is a big positive and I’m ready for next week.”
Spieth, who won a Masters, U.S. Open and British Open before his 23rd birthday, can capture the career Grand Slam by winning the PGA. When he didn’t win for more than 3 ½ years and admitted in January that he was “really struggling for answers”, some critics wondered if he’d ever regain the form of the No. 1 golfer on the planet. Spieth declawed those devils by winning the Valero Texas Open in early April, and then – after taking a couple weeks off while sidelined by COVID – confirmed his return with a Top 10 finish in McKinney.
An afterthought heading into The Masters a month ago, Spieth is now the fifth betting favorite for the PGA at 14-1.
“I’m very happy for the tournament. It was great out here,” said Spieth. “I’m hoping all the top players will come here next year.”
Once upon a time, the Byron Nelson was the Spring social event in Dallas-Fort Worth. During the height of its run at TPC Las Colinas, Tiger Woods played in front of an approving Nelson. Men showed up to watch golf. Women showed up – often is high heels and low-cut dresses – to be watched by men. The hub of the activity was The Pavilion, a massive tent which housed flowing drinks, live music and DFW’s raucous, real-time version of Tinder.
It was also a very natural connection, in spirit and style, to the action right down the street at Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
But after Lord Byron’s death in 2006, the tournament waned. The golf course grew staid, even at times unsightly. Placed at an awkward time just after The Masters and well before the next major, the event eventually failed to attract top players. So in 2018 it moved to Trinity Forest in south Dallas.
Few shots in this area have been yanked farther out of bounds.
Trinity Forest was an eyesore that screamed more Dublin than Dallas. Tree-less, eternal dunes with a flag arbitrarily stuck in the ground every so often. It had, well, nothing to offer. No parking. No shade. No Pavilion.
Asked to offer his thoughts about Trinity Forest, veteran player Matt Kuchar quipped, “Well, I really liked Las Colinas.”
To make matters worse, the City of Dallas proved a prickly partner.
After the failed two-year run, COVID cut year three about the time the PGA and title sponsor AT&T decided something had to be done. A move somewhere. Anywhere.
“Let’s just say when the decision was made,” said 2021 tournament chairman Jeff Walter, “it was a decision we didn’t disagree with at all. There’s a new energy up here. You can feel it. You can see it.”
Evidence: During Thursday’s first round, merchandise and concession sales surpassed the total for any individual day in the Byron Nelson’s past 10 years. And that, mind you, was with no tickets sold to the public and capacity limited to 12,500 instead of the ideal target of around 50,000.
Said Salesmanship Club volunteer Kelvin Walker, “Oh, it’s better. In a lot of ways. Just better. No comparison.”
Though Mother Nature did her usual number on the Nelson’s last day, the tournament was smooth, relatively splendid. When rain transformed designated grass parking lots into unusable quagmires, the City of McKinney quickly audibled to transform its high school football stadium into a patron staging area. Numerous entities combined to add landscaping, dams and upgraded infrastructure to a Craig Ranch development that has been, to this point, underwhelming while nearby Legacy West in Plano and the million-dollar mile in Frisco have flourished.
“Everyone is working together to make this tournament the best it can be,” said Walter. “Corporate sponsors are back and they’re making 3-5-year commitments. Groups are working together. This year is just a taste. Hopefully next year we’ll be back to full speed, full capacity. We’re all bullish on 2022.”
Said McKinney mayor George Fuller, “I expect the Byron to be here much longer than five years.”
Choctaw Casino signed on as a major sponsor. There are plans next year for a Saturday night concert featuring A-list artists from multiple music genres, and hopes to re-christen a centralized “Pavilion” area. (For now, there are multiple party coves, if you will.) The Par 3 No. 17 hole is ringed by luxury suites and boxes, creating a rowdy amphitheater vibe. Despite the changes – the improvements – the heartbeat of the tournament remains the red pants brigade: the volunteer army of the Salesmanship Club that has hosted the Byron Nelson since 1968 and raised more money for charity than any other PGA event.
“Look, at the end of the day we’re a charity,” Walter said. “The more revenue we raise the more successful we are and the more people we can help. That’s what this is all about.”
While Spieth flirted with the lead and generated by far the biggest roars, the Craig Ranch course’s impossibly wide Zoysia fairways and soft, rain-soaked greens turned the tournament into an exciting pitch ’n putt won by South Korea’s K.H. Lee at a staggering 25-under. Notables such as world No. 2 Jon Rahm, Masters champ Hideki Matsuyama and big-hitting SMU alum Bryson DeChambeau were non-factors, and other fan favorites like Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka didn’t even make the cut to the weekend. Other than Spieth, casual golf fans likely didn’t recognize a name in the final leaderboard’s top 11 other than maybe 2011 Masters champ Charl Schwartzel.
But this debut wasn’t about the winner. It was about mostly mask-less fans shaking hands, socializing and even smiling. Together, again. Getting reacquainted with an old friend, in a new place.
“We went to Trinity Forest and … it just wasn’t fan-friendly,” said Dallas resident Jeff Hass, who attended Thursday’s first round with three golf buddies. “This is more like it. Plenty of places to sit. To grab a beer. To sit in the shade. To people-watch. That’s a big part of it. I think it’s going to be great here.”
In announcing his course’s five-year contract to host the tournament, David Craig crowed, “We are going to bring the party back.”
The Byron buzz is indeed back.
So too is Spieth’s surge.