The opening ceremony at the Byron Nelson Classic used to present a particularly dramatic tableau: among the double handful of dignitaries arrayed in the plaza between the TPC Las Colinas pro shop and the Four Seasons hotel sat the man himself. No umbrella, sometimes no hat; Byron liked it hot. When it was his turn to speak, Mr Eleven Straight would hobble on replacement hips to the podium, while behind him, glowing in the sun – at least in memory – loomed his statue (the two-metre tall Bronze Byron had been erected in 1992). What a sight! The audience – usually a couple hundred of us – stood and cheered.
It was a ritual; when a tournament is held at the same place for 35 years, habits form. Byron, for example, usually topped off lunch with a dish of the famous Four Seasons bread pudding; he never failed to shake the hands of players completing their rounds; and he liked to take a break from other duties to watch the play from a cart for a hole or two. A crowd inevitably coalesced around him, watching him watch.
But as George Harrison reminded us, all things must pass. Byron died at age 94, four months after the 2006 Nelson, and with him went that cool juxtaposition of golf hero and his monument, not to mention the considerable force of his presence. Now things are changing again in a comprehensive way, because this week’s edition will be the last Nelson in Irving, as far as anyone knows. The tournament will be held at a spectacular new course next year, the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-designed Trinity Forest, in South Dallas.
It’s a big deal. About a quarter of a million spectators will have to access a map app to find Trinity Forest, for one thing, and they’ll have to ladle on the sunscreen, because the new venue is virtually treeless. Players will face a completely different test as they move from wall-to-wall green and iced, mango-scented towels to a spare, bare bones racetrack. And pity the poor City of Irving, which will have to make do without a big chunk of the annual economic boost from the tournament, estimated at $US40 million. The Dallas Cowboys left for another Dallas suburb in 2009 – and now this! Irving cops will rue the loss of all that overtime, extra cash that built their swimming pools and helped put their kids through college.
For the people who have run the thing for so long, the last Irving Nelson signals the demise of many week-long, once-a-year friendships. This particular blend of sponsors, hotel employees, city personnel, red-panted volunteers from the Salesmanship Club, and the nice people from the Momentous Institute – the tournament’s charity – will never be together again. Writers, too: on behalf of the notebook and microphone set, thank you, Four Seasons, for your unfailing courtesy and easily the best media dining on the US PGA Tour.
Even for the hotel, it’s not about the money.
“It’s much more an emotional loss than a financial one,” says Vail Tolbert, the director of publicity at the Four Seasons. “This time of year, when the weather is so beautiful in Texas, is very popular for group business. We’ll probably still sell out. The opening ceremony will be the first of many lasts. I’ll probably shed some tears. It’s going to be bittersweet.”
There’s bitterness, to be sure. When the plan was announced in 2013, Irving mayor Beth Van Duyne characterised the change of venue as “the taking of a golden nugget from one city to another city”. But for the two main players in this drama, sweet optimism prevails. AT&T has been the title sponsor only since 2015, so its nostalgia bank isn’t as full as some others. And it is absolutely pumped that the next Nelson will take place in its hometown; the company moved its headquarters from San Antonio to Dallas in 2008. For this last tournament in Irving, AT&T intends to go out with a bang.
“It’s going to be celebratory,” says the director of corporate sponsorships, Mike Hovey, who surely has one of the biggest jobs in professional golf, given the company’s sponsorship of the Masters, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the AT&T Byron Nelson – and AT&T Jordan Spieth. Hovey describes the high-tech magic that will take place in the 12-metre geodesic dome they’ve built behind TPC Las Colinas’ second tee.
On the structure’s ceiling will play a 360-degree video entitled “Jordan Spieth: The Course of Life.” On the sides, I guess, monitors tuned to DirecTV (owned by you know who) will be televising the play on three holes, in 4K, which is at least one more K than I’m used to.
The Salesmanship Club, the Navy Seals of tournament hosting, is also upbeat. The all-time US PGA Tour leader in charitable dollars raised – about $US150 million – might have raised even more over the years, but for hard to fathom but persistent negative evaluations of the TPC. “The worst we play all year,” one pro told Golf Digest in an anonymous survey in 2012. “It was bad to begin with and they still haven’t go it right,” said another, referring to the D.A. Weibring redesign of 2008.
One last time, about an hour after the closing ceremony on Sunday, Tolbert and other Four Seasons personnel will find an empty suite or room, and locate something strong to drink. The GM, Dirk Burghartz, will clear his throat and raise a glass. To friends, he might say. And to Byron, and to 35 years.