The sports world has its eyes on Farmingdale, New York, where the PGA Championship tees off in just over a week. Thanks to recent Masters champion Tiger Woods, the second major of the season has extra intrigue, and could very well see its best ratings in a long time as the event moves from its traditional late-August position to mid-May.
As much as excited as next week is justifiably bringing, however, let us not forget that there is other Tour business first: the AT&T Byron Nelson.
Taking place in Dallas, Texas, Trinity Forest Golf Club plays host to an event that first teed off in 1944 and continues to honor its tournament namesake, a 52-time PGA Tour winner whose 11-start winning streak remains one of professional sports’ most unbreakable records.
Taking place the week before a major, it would be expected that the tournament would be popular among the world’s best, but at least for this year, that is untrue. Perhaps that is because the birdie-fest that is Trinity Forest does not seem especially comparably to the PGA Championship’s host course – the brutally difficult Bethpage Black.
Of the 152 players in the Byron Nelson field, just 25 of them are qualified for the PGA Championship. And of those 25, only one of them ranks inside the world’s top 15. That one player, however, is Brooks Koepka, and if anyone’s major championship prep should be unquestioned, it should be the man whose last seven major starts have resulted in three victories, a runner-up, and a T6.
This will be just the second year that the AT&T Byron Nelson is being held at Trinity Forest, and if it is anything like last year’s thriller, where rookie phenom Aaron Wise reached 23-under for his first career PGA Tour victory, expect a lot of very low scores. Last year’s edition had a cut-line of 4-under and saw 31 players finish at 10-under-par or better.
Tournament: AT&T Byron Nelson
Dates: May 9-12, 2019
Where: Dallas, Texas
Course: Trinity Forest Golf Club
Distance: Par 71, 7,380 yards
Architect: Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,422,000
Defending Champion: Aaron Wise
Betting Favorites: Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson, Marc Leishman, Branden Grace, Aaron Wise, Patrick Reed, Keith Mitchell
1. Wise Defends Maiden Title
The former NCAA individual champion from Oregon had his breakthrough victory in Dallas a year ago, outdueling the far more experienced Marc Leishman on Sunday to win by three strokes. Wise then went onto win PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
Now 22-years-old, Wise had found his sophomore season on the Tour a bit more difficult, as he has yet to contend in a single event this year, and his high finish was a T10 in Mexico last November.
However, he is coming off back-to-back respectable performances: a T17 at The Masters and a T18 at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, giving hope that he could become the AT&T Byron Nelson’s first back-to-back champion since Tom Watson pulled off the feat in 1979 and 1980, 16 years before Wise was even born. If he can post three rounds of 65 or better like he did a year ago, his chances will be good.
2. Spieth Hoping For Home Cooking
Jordan Spieth’s 2019 season has been nothing short of an absolute disaster, but the Dallas native is hoping that home comfort will get his game back on track before he attempts to complete the career grand slam at next week’s PGA Championship.
The 25-year-old University of Texas product first burst onto the PGA Tour radar when he shockingly contended as a 16-year-old in the 2010 edition, reaching as high as fourth place on the weekend before finishing T16. Surprisingly, that is still his best finish in the event. Spieth finished T21 a year ago.
3. Most Popular Man in the Dallas Field
Spieth is undeniably a local sports hero, but he is not even the biggest one in this year’s field. That would instead be legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback and NFL commentator prodigy Tony Romo, who was given a sponsor’s exemption. While Romo’s inclusion is undoubtedly a publicity gimmick, which those in charge of the tournament are very unlikely to admit to, he is arguably the best celebrity golfer on the planet.
This will be his event debut, but third career PGA Tour start: he has been in the field for the past two Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championships, an opposite field event with a very weak field. Still, it will be considered a major success if Romo can eschew a last-place finish. In those two previous PGA Tour starts, he finished last place, and second-to-last place, respectively.
BTW pgatour.com: you seriously don’t have a picture of Romo for your field list? He is easily the most photographed player in the field. You even have a picture for Stuart Deane, whoever that is.
4. Koepka Giving It a Go
Brooks Koepka will be at Bethpage Black next week as the PGA Championship’s defending champion, but the man who has been the best big-game hunter on Tour the past several years will tune up his game at Trinity Forest this week. Koepka is an enormous favorite, which should be expected since at World No. 3 he is the highest-ranked player in the field, by far.
The next three highest are No. 19 Patrick Reed, who has been awful in 2019, No. 22 March Leishman, and No. 29 Hideki Matsuyama.
In Koepka’s last individual event (he teamed up with his brother at the Zurich Classic a few weeks ago), he finished T2 at The Masters, and was the last player effectively eliminated from the title before Tiger Woods snagged his fifth career green jacket. His best finish in this event came three years ago at TPC Four Seasons, where he finished solo-second, losing a playoff to Sergio Garcia.
Trinity Forest is not hosting the strongest field the AT&T Byron Nelson has ever seen, but while it lacks firepower at the top, the field is surprisingly deep. One of the more conspicuous aspects is that it is heavy in notable Europeans.
Several are represented in this week’s power rankings:
10. Kevin Na (50), 40-1
9. Thorbjorn Olesen (53), 50-1
8. Rafa Cabrera Bello (31), 28-1
7. Keith Mitchell (56), 28-1
6. Aaron Wise (62), 22-1
5. Scott Piercy (86), 40-1
4. Branden Grace (46), 33-1
3. Marc Leishman (22), 28-1
2. Justin Harding (45), 70-1
1. Brooks Koepka (3), 7-1
Top Sleeper: Shawn Stefani
After shooting a first-round 5-over 76 at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, most players would have basically given up, but most golfers are not Shawn Stefani. The 37-year-old bounced back with a Friday 65, and then after a 70-67 weekend, Stefani impressively finished in a share of 13th.
At No. 300 in the world rankings, Stefani is not having the most impressive season, but he has had a tendency to be streaky in the past, and his tremendous finish at Quail Hollow last week should give him considerable confidence going into Trinity Forest, where he reached 10-under for the week a year ago (T26). It also helps that Stefani is a Texas native. He was born in the Houston area, where he still resides, and played college golf at Texas’ Lamar University.
First held in 1944, the inaugural Byron Nelson Classic was won by, perhaps ironically, by Nelson himself, who won $2000 after his 10-stroke romp over 17-time PGA Tour Champion and owner of one of the best names in sports history, Jug McSpaden. Nelson’s name was not on the tournament at that time, that would not occur until 1968, but the legendary player was a fixture of the event for a long time, acting as host for decades after his retirement.
Despite 65 editions of the AT&T Byron Nelson having been played, it has proven to be a tournament that is very difficult to win more than once. Only five players have accomplished that feat, with Tom Watson (4 wins) and Sam Snead (3 wins) being the only to win more than twice. The three two-time winners are Jack Nicklaus, Bruce Lietzke, and Sergio Garcia.
Similar to last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, the AT&T Byron Nelson has been a recent haven for first time PGA Tour champions. Since 2010, Jason Day (2010), Keegan Bradley (2011), Sang-moon Bae (2013), Brendon Todd (2014), and Aaron Wise (2018) won this event as their first career PGA Tour victories.
Stat of the Week
3 – The number of major championships from Brooks Koepka, out of three, where he played the PGA Tour scheduled tournament the week before:
2017 U.S. Open – T37 FedEx St. Jude Classic
2018 U.S. Open – T30 FedEx St. Jude Classic
2018 PGA Championship – 5th WGC-Bridgestone Invitational
Very few of Koepka’s best contemporaries are following his lead this week, but Koepka can hardly be blamed for sticking with what has worked.
Hole of the Week
No.5, Trinity Forest Golf Club
Par 4, 315 yards
2018 average: 3.62 (3rd easiest)
A fun hole to play, the fifth at Trinity Forest measures just 315 yards and is easily gettable by the bombers. But as a links style design, balls will have a tendency to roll (and roll), so off target shots can easily cause numbers to soar.
The key here is to hit a solid drive (270ish) to the right in front of a bunker guarding the green, leaving an easy wedge from the best angle.
“Being able to play in Dallas with that kind of extra level the Byron Nelson brings for me, personally, when I tee it up, kind of almost feels close to a major championship. And then I’ll go in maybe a little more comfortable into the PGA.”
– Jordan Spieth