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Poorer field this year for Byron Nelson event

Lord Byron died again Friday.

Pardon me. I mean no disrespect.

I’m merely aghast over Friday’s announcement that most of golf’s greatest players — including one named Tiger Woods — will be skipping this week’s EDS Byron Nelson Championship.

The tournament will be the first tour stop at Las Colinas since the great Byron Nelson passed away in September at the age of 94.

As of Friday’s deadline, only two of the world’s top-10-ranked players, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, had committed to play this week’s Nelson.

In the three previous Nelson tournaments, at least six top-10 players showed up to play — an homage-rendering, they said, that showed their respect for Lord Byron and for all he’d done for their game. Just two years ago, the five highest-ranked golfers in the world came to play at the Nelson.

Now, shame on them. Especially Woods.

Tournament sponsors and the Salesmanship Club of Dallas have made no secret of their plans to formally honor Byron during the tournament. The tributes will include a moment of silence during Saturday’s third round and a flyover by Marine F-18s.

It would have been a classy, respectful gesture on the pros’ part, one would think, to participate in the first tournament since the great Nelson’s death.

Instead, Woods, Jim Furyk, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Geoff Ogilvy— top-10 players all — have informed tournament officials that they won’t be coming. At least a half-dozen other notable names, including John Daly’s, had to be erased from the final list.

Daly had been awarded a sponsor’s exemption to play in the Nelson, an invitation that he had trumpeted on his own Web site.

Daly decided, however, to join Els and Goosen this weekend at the BMW Asian Open in Shanghai, China.

A pro athlete playing for a paycheck, in lieu of paying his respects to one of the game’s legends, should not be surprising.

If anyone deserves to be paid respects, however, it is Nelson, who used to telephone the players himself to invite them to come play and who used to send them handwritten thank-you notes when the tournament was over.

Woods, in particular, was one of Byron’s favorites, and Tiger long professed that the feeling was mutual. A year ago, Woods pulled out of the Nelson tournament because of his father’s death.

The message this time, though, seems unmistakable. If the tributes planned for Byron weren’t enough to lure Woods back this year, what makes anyone think that he’ll come back next April? Or the year after?

Or that Tiger Woods will ever play tournament golf again in Texas?

His first and last appearance at Colonial came in 1997. A disappointing final round left Woods steamed and tied for fourth place, and he has never returned.

He played in the Texas Open, a fall tour event in San Antonio, in 1996 and came in third. He has never returned.

Woods has never played in the Shell Houston Open.

The Nelson, however, was supposed to be Woods’ tournament. The tournament where Fergie, the Duchess of York, once came to see Tiger play. From 1997 to 2004, Woods played in the Nelson Championship seven times, shooting a combined 77 under par.

Just you watch, we predicted — one of these years at the Nelson, Woods was going to play the tourney’s Cottonwood Valley course and shoot a 58.

Instead, two years ago, he shot a 72 at Cottonwood Valley, causing him to miss a PGA Tour cut and end his streak at making the cut at 142 straight. He hasn’t been back since.

As much as Woods’ extraordinary drawing power has boosted golf, his random, infrequent attendance habits threaten to hurt the sport. There are two professional golf tours in the world — the sporadic tournaments that Tiger Woods plays in, and the growing list of all the others.

Woods plays the major championships, The Players Championship, the big-bucks world events, tournaments sponsored by his endorsement partners, tournaments near homes that he owns, and tournaments hosted by the sport’s living legends, like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Sadly, that list of homage no longer includes Byron Nelson.

Shame on him for not coming, even if it’s just for one last time to tell Byron’s widow, Peggy, and the Nelson tourney people that he’s sorry.

Sorry for turning the Byron Nelson Championship into, from now on, the “Dallas Open.”
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7760 glebreton@star-telegram.com

April 23, 2007


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