While Byron Nelson was alive, particularly in his later years, out of respect, a good sampling of big name golfers attended his tournament. Then a couple of things happened. Byron passed away. The Players moved to May. The Texas Open sponsor, Valero, procured a spot in the spring instead of the fall.
As a result, the HP Byron Nelson’s slot on the calendar was less favorable in 2010, generating a weaker field than when it led into Quail Hollow and The Players. This is nothing new in the world of golf tournaments. There are shifts in the calendar from time to time if for no other reason than to provide an opportunity for a tournament to get better fields every second or third or fourth year. In fact, after sponsorship issues, the biggest concern for tournament directors—a huge migraine headache if you will—is their position on the PGA Tour calendar.
The toughest placement is before or after a major championship. Some golfers don’t play before majors, and many of them are too wiped out to play afterward.
There are exceptions to that, of course, like Ernie Els winning at Westchester after winning his second U.S. Open in 1997 or Hale Irwin doing the same thing in 1990. How about Davis Love III winning five times at Harbour Town the week after The Masters?
Now while some whine about situations like this years HP Byron Nelson, in golf, every shot makes somebody happy. And this week, because top guys did not play, Jason Day has a two year exemption, a ticket to Kapalua, and an invitation to the 2011 Masters and 2011 Players. If he wins another tournament in the next year or two, he may be on his way to being “somebody.” You don’t have to take my word for it. You just need to look at history.
Past Nelson champions include Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Raymond Floyd, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh, and the late Payne Stewart. But even with such historic star power, several of them became famous sometime after their victory at the Byron Nelson.
Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Nick Price, and Ernie Els all won the tournament as their second PGA Tour victory. When they won, except for Ernie Els, whose first US championship was the 1994 US Open, they did not have the same star power that they achieved later in their careers. But it was an important stepping stone. A launching pad.
Without a week where five guys who have won 150 tournaments between them are in the field, we would not have a chance for newcomers to break into the spotlight. We would not even know who the newcomers are.
Even I admit that the first two rounds of the Byron Nelson, I was not captivated. But by late Friday afternoon, I was tuning in to find out how the 16-year-old was doing.
By Saturday, I learned more than I ever knew about Jason Day and Blake Adams, just as a few years earlier we all learned about Sean O’Hair who was not even the eventual winner. O’Hair went on to win his first tournament three months later at the John Deere, and that got him into his first British Open. He has three tournament titles now and has the game for more.
As for the 16-year-old Dallas amateur, Jordan Spieth, the 2009 USGA Junior Amateur champion, the Nelson will be remembered as his coming out party. Not only did he make the cut, he admitted on Sunday that he realized too late that if he had just played a few shots a little better and held his emotions in check, he might have won.
Just as Tiger Woods can make a tournament remarkable with great shots, this year’s HP Byron Nelson was memorable for the leaders showing they were mortals. That on occasion they could play as badly as the rest of us. We know how it feels to hit a ball in the water when it means something. We know how it feels to screw up. We could feel their pain.
Jason Day and his nearest competitor on the closing holes, Blake Adams, both hit shots they shouldn’t have. But after rinsing his ball on the 18th, Day overcame the mistake. When his final putt dropped, he exploded with a leap into his caddie’s arms the likes of which has not been seen since the late Deborah Couples jumped onto Fred after his first victory at the Kemper Open. Day, like Deborah, knew what it meant.
Everybody has to start someplace, and at this year’s HP Byron Nelson Jason Day, no matter how he did it, beat everybody who showed up. He’s a winner and is now on his way.