By Norm Elrod
(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — The AT&T Byron Nelson, with the revised PGA Tour schedule, now has the dubious honor of preceding a major. Many of golf’s top-ranked will be resting up this week for the PGA Championship. But a field featuring many of the game’s top-30 players still includes many of the game’s big names, while also offering up-and-comers a chance to make their mark. Max Homa, the relative unknown winner of the Wells Fargo last week, proved just how real that chance is.
Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas won’t want for excitement, with players chasing a purse of $7.9 million as they tune up for the season’s second major. The winner will add 500 FedExCup points to his tally and $1.4 million to his bank account.
Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth headline the field, at least in terms of big-name Tour pros. Koepka, ranked third in the world, is the chalk going in. Spieth, ranked 39th, in the midst of what has been a rough season so far, also finds himself among the favorites.
Last year’s champion Aaron Wise will look to defend his title against a field that features Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama and Marc Leishman, last year’s runner-up . Other former champions set to tee it up include Brendon Todd (2014), Sangmoon Bae (2013) and Rory Sabbatini (2009). Their wins do not bestow any particular advantage, however, as will become apparent.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current CBS Sports analyst Tony Romo will compete in his second PGA Tour event of the season — his third event overall — on a sponsor exemption. His previous outings did not go well, and he likely won’t contend this week either.
The AT&T Byron Nelson was played at TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas in Irving, Texas beginning in the mid-1980s. But the event moved over to Trinity Forest last year. Opened in 2016, Trinity Forest (par-71, 7371 yards) plays much like a links-style course, with wavy, open expanses, dunes and windy conditions. There’s a reason for that.
Trinity Forest is built on top of an old landfill, with an underground cap sealing in the garbage that was once exposed. The course is completely devoid of trees (whose roots grow down and could puncture that cap), not to mention water and rough. The ground undulates, creating uncertainty everywhere. The greens rise up from the fairways but fall off sharply on the sides. It is among the more unique venues on the PGA Tour, a far cry from what most players are used to.
One hole that proves illustrative is the 630-yard par-5 14th, which is among the longest holes on Tour. Players can try to make it to the green in two shots, while avoiding the fairway bunker, or they can lay up. Last year, aggressiveness paid off on this hole. But that isn’t universally the best approach on a course where long rolls and strange bounces can and will affect even the best shots.
Brooks Koepka (13/2)
Koepka, ranked third in the world, is the best player in this field, and he comes in playing the best golf. He tied for second at the Masters, one stroke behind Tiger Woods, and also at the Honda Classic a month before that. The 2018 PGA Championship winner likes to play his way into big tournaments. So while this week is a tune up for next week, it’s also a challenge he’ll be focused on.
Hideki Matsuyama (16-1)
Matsuyama comes to Dallas ranked 29th in the world, with only three top-10 finishes so far this year. His best performance was a T3 at the Farmers Insurance Open back in January, though he also turned in a T8 at the Players and a T9 at the Genesis Open. Matsuyama managed a respectable T16 in Trinity Forest’s inaugural AT&T Byron Nelson, 11 strokes off of Wise’s winning score. Look for him to do better this year.
Jordan Spieth (18/1)
Spieth’s ranking has dropped to 39th, 22 spots below where he ended 2018. That may have something to do with the missed cuts and poor performances that have plagued him in recent months. His best 2019 showing — 21st — came at the Masters. Speith is quite familiar with the AT&T Byron Nelson, the site of his first PGA Tour appearance back in 2010. His T21 performance last year was unremarkable… still there’s something inspiring about playing in one’s own backyard in front of the hometown fans.