Course Correction

The Byron Nelson Classic has struggled since the death of its namesake, but organizers are hoping a player-driven redesign will get it back on track
April 27, 2008

AFTER HOLING outfor a 67 and the first-round lead at the 1983 Byron Nelson Classic—the firstNelson played at the just-opened TPC Four Seasons Resort in Irving, Texas—thedependably impolitic Lanny Wadkins addressed the media by the 18th green. Themoment begged for a kind comment about the eager-to-please new venue, but Lannycouldn't help himself. "This is not my favorite golf course," he said.¬∂ Wadkins was only saying aloud what others were whispering and what they wouldcontinue to mutter under their breath through the years. Although the superblymaintained course had good bloodlines—Jay Morrish designed with Ben Crenshawand Nelson consulting, and it was a hit with members and resort guests—theseare Tour players we're talking about. They had played gems like AugustaNational and Harbour Town before the Nelson, and would play Muirfield, Colonialand the U.S. Open after. By comparison, the TPC Four Seasons Resort was asclunky as its name, a themeless journey between its namesake office park andtile-roofed homes built in the Texas-giant architectural style. So when Byrondied in 2006, and the tournament got an unattractive date two weeks after theMasters, a lot of the best players, by which we mean Tiger and Phil, foundsomething else to do.

Enter DonaldAlbert Weibring, Champions tour stalwart and a principal in D.A. Weibring GolfResources Group. D.A. loved Byron and what he stood for, and tried mightily towin his friend's tournament since their first meeting in 1978; he almost did,in '95, when he finished second to Ernie Els. Thus when new Four Seasons Resortowner BentleyForbes announced its intention to remodel the course, Weibringwent after the job and got it. "This one was personal," he says.

Weibring'spersonal touch extended to immediately e-mailing virtually everybody on the PGAand Champions tours for input. Tom Watson, Bruce Lietzke and Crenshaw were mosthelpful, discussing each hole in depth. Locally based Tour players J.J. Henryand Harrison Frazar were employed to work closely with Weibring and GolfResources architect Steve Wolfard. The consensus—that from the tee the TPC feltawkward—could not have been a surprise. But the deeper motive for all thiscommunicating was to subtly obligate the players who were consulted, to enterthe tournament, for now Weibring is the event's de facto ambassador.

"I'm on therecord regarding our date," says Weibring. "I don't think that's theway you show respect to Byron Nelson or to the tournament that raises the mostmoney for charity [$94 million since 1944] on Tour. It's time for the playersto step up and support the legacy Byron cared most about."

After ScottVerplank holed the winning putt last May, the bulldozers roared. Then, theydidn't: So much rain fell on north-central Texas that 67 days were lost in themiddle of the wall-to-wall remodeling. With its fairways stripped forregrading, the course was mud, bringing a gloomy mood to the twice-weeklyconference calls between Weibring and as many as 50 others with a stake in theproject.

About $10 millionand many sunny days later, the TPC Four Seasons Resort is a smoother, lesscluttered course. Weibring and Wolfard went old school: square tees; closelymown chipping areas around smaller, more undulating greens; better frames forthose greens. The trouble is in the ground, not on it. Gone are all the humpsand bumps, and in their place are flash-faced, amoeba-shaped bunkers. Thebright white sand therein is a special blend of Sure Play and Premier Whiteinvented by John Cunningham, the course superintendent. Half a dozen fairwayswere regraded—the most subtle but significant answer to the unease from thetees. Trees were rearranged rather than added, the biggest of them being liftedfrom one place to another with the world's largest tree spade. They cantransplant a tree that has a 20-inch trunk with that sucker.

"D.A. alwaysuses the word clean to describe what we wanted here," says Wolfard, whoworked for Jack Nicklaus before joining Weibring 10 years ago. "I think weachieved that. We have guides or goal posts left and right—trees, bunkers,hazards, high and low. On the tee you'll know what choices you have. You maynot like them, but the options are very clear."

On a preopeningwalking tour of the course, Weibring spelled out another word that guided hishand. "F-U-N," he said. "We want the driver back in the players'hands. We want them to aim at the pin. On 17 [a par-3] on Sunday, they'd putthe pin on the right, behind the water, and we were hitting three-irons out tothe side and trying to make a four- or five-footer for par. No drama."

Dramatic fun willpresumably visit 17 this week. At 198 yards from the tips, the downhill hole isa bit shorter than it was, the green slightly more accepting. And withenhancements in the amphitheater seating (and beer and wine for sale on thecourse for the first time), Sunday on 17 at the Nelson may have the giddy feelof an autumn Sunday at Texas Stadium.

Assuming theysurvive 17, the players will face an amazing water feature emerging from theearth 252 yards out from the back tee on 18. This 170-yard-long series of fourwaterfalls is not a place to pause and compose haiku, but a4,000-gallons-a-minute gusher. TPC Four Seasons Falls is so visually arrestingthat it's likely to become the signature of the place, but it looks as if itmight be easy to avoid for the best players in the land. Maybe there should beanother tee farther to the left. Who knows? No one played the place until April19 per order of the Tour, which wanted the course pristine. Said Henry during awalkabout on March 25, "These will be probably the best-conditionedfairways we play on this year."

They had betterbe—the future of the event at this site depends on the success of theredesign.

EDS Byron NelsonChampionship news, scores and daily photos at GOLF.com.

"I'm on the record regarding our date," saysWeibring. "I don't think that's the way you SHOW RESPECT TO BYRON. It'stime for the players to step up and support the legacy Byron cared mostabout."

PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichNELSON FALLS The renovations on the 18th at TPC Four Seasons Resort include a rushing, 170-yard-long water hazard. PHOTOCHRIS CONDON/PGA TOUR/GETTY IMAGESWINDS OF CHANGE Weibring consulted several other Tour players to figure out how to upgrade the Nelson layout.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)