By Brad Townsend
The Dallas Morning News
For the AT&T Byron Nelson, whose roots trace to 1944, it’s a historic moment. The tournament is moving outside Dallas County’s borders for the first time, specifically to McKinney’s TPC Craig Ranch in Collin County.
The Nelson and PGA Tour officially announced the Nelson’s move to Craig Ranch on Wednesday morning.
For David Craig, developer of 2,200-acre Craig Ranch and founder of its golf club, the news was a long time coming. When he hired Tom Weiskopf to design TPC Craig Ranch, which was completed in 2004, Craig’s stated vision was that it would someday host the Nelson tournament.
That vision became reality on Tuesday, when letter-of-intent documents were signed, assuring that the next five Nelson tournaments will be played at TPC Craig Ranch, starting with the May 2021 event.
Members of the 100-year Salesmanship Club were informed via Zoom call of the move, which was unanimously approved by the club’s golf board.
At the same time, TPC Craig Ranch’s 350 members were given the news by David Pillsbury, CEO of ClubCorp, which purchased the course in January 2019. Craig, 63, no longer has ownership stake, but is the chairman of TPC Craig Ranch’s board of directors.
“For it to be happening now, it’s like a light in the present darkness,” Craig told The News Tuesday, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic. “All the stars seemed to line up.
“I believe it’s not by happenstance. It was meant to happen. It was built with the hope that someday it would host the Byron Nelson — and here we are. It’s just a dream come true.”
Tuesday’s news came four weeks to the day after the PGA Tour announced that the 2020 Nelson, which was scheduled for May 7-10, would be among the eight tournaments canceled — so far — due to the pandemic.
The 2020 Nelson was to be the third, and last, played at Dallas’ Trinity Forest Golf Club. Plagued in part by bad weather, the 2018 and 2019 Nelsons at Trinity Forest drew lower attendance than during the event’s 35-year run at Irving’s TPC Four Seasons.
Consequently, net proceeds going to the Nelson’s charitable beneficiary, Momentous Institute, dropped significantly.
After netting $5.8 million in 2016 and a record $6.8 million in 2017, the final two years at the Four Seasons, the Nelson netted $4.8 million the first year at Trinity Forest and about $3 million in 2019.
Until its move to Trinity Forest, the Nelson raised by far the most money on the PGA Tour from 1973 to 2017 -- $156 million.
“Our first objective was to choose a venue that would position us to support the Momentous Institute now and into the future,” Mike McKinley, chairman of the Salesmanship Club’s golf board, said Tuesday.
“We’ve had a couple of rough years. We’re ready to reclaim the title, if you will.”
McKinley said the search for a new home, conducted by Nelson tournament leadership as well as PGA Tour officials, began with about six courses.
The two finalists: TPC Craig Ranch and TPC Four Seasons.
The final decision wasn’t simply a matter of choosing par-72, 7,438-yard Craig Ranch over the familiar Four Seasons layout and resort facilities.
Large-scale parking options the Nelson annually enjoyed in Irving, McKinley said, virtually have disappeared. First there was the loss of Texas Stadium parking after its 2010 demolition. Now the primary parking area that was utilized until the tournament left Irving is privately owned and not available.
The City of McKinney and Craig Ranch, conversely, promised — free to the Nelson — 20,000 spaces within a mile-and-a-half of the TPC clubhouse, including closer-in parking for corporate sponsors.
“They blew us away with what they had to offer us to form of, really, a true partnership to support the same values and goals that we believe very strongly that we support,” McKinley said.
And what does the Salesmanship Club’s leadership think of contesting the tournament outside of Dallas County for the first time?
“It’s not a stretch at all,” McKinley said. “I do realize we are making history by leaving the boundary line that is Dallas versus Collin County. But this is a much bigger community than it was even ten years ago. We’re just excited at the opportunities that wait for us there.”
The Salesmanship Club and Nelson tournament director Jon Drago have strong familiarity with TPC Craig Ranch and its leadership.
The Salesmanship Club served as the host organization when TPC Craig Ranch hosted the 2008 and 2012 season-ending championship tournaments of what is now called the Korn Ferry Tour, the PGA Tour’s developmental tour.
McKinley said Craig Ranch probably wasn’t ready to host the Nelson back then, noting that there’s now considerably more business development — and population — in the surrounding area.
TPC Craig Ranch is about ten miles from the future site of the PGA of America headquarters and its two under-construction championship courses, one of which is scheduled to host the 2027 PGA Championship. According to sources, the Salesmanship Club’s and PGA Tour’s contract with TPC Craig Ranch includes options to extend the agreement, potentially setting up a Nelson-PGA Championship May of ’27 golf extravaganza.
Collin County is the fourth-fastest-growing county in the country. When the PGA of America last year announced its move from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. to North Texas, CEO Seth Waugh said the association’s dream was to make Frisco the “Silicon Valley of Golf.” With neighboring city McKinney nabbing the Nelson, Waugh might need to amend the PGA’s dream parameters from “Frisco” to “Collin Country.”
On the morning of March 19, two days after the PGA Tour announced the cancellation of this year’s Nelson, a meeting of “dream teams,” as Craig called them, met in Craig Ranch’s Weiskopf board room to discuss the possibility of the club hosting the Nelson.
The meeting included the Nelson’s McKinley and Drago; McKinney mayor George Fuller and predecessor Brian Loughmiller; several McKinney business leaders; and Craig and Pillsbury.
The meeting was scheduled for 7:30. All of the participants had to brave torrential rain to come, many of them arriving soaking wet.
But, Craig said, “It was magic.”
Why? Because it was a room full of familiar faces. ClubCorps Pillsbury worked many years for the PGA Tour, including overseeing all of the TPC courses in the country. Loughmiller and McKinley are longtime North Texas attorneys and friends.
The meeting occurred just days before strict social distancing and shelter in place went into effect.
“It’s just unbelievable that we are where we are right now,” Craig said. “This was less than a month ago and now it’s a done deal. Dreams do come true.”
Craig said he phoned the good news to Weiskopf, whose first reaction was, “Finally.”
Pillsbury praised Craig for his vision and courage. His vision to conceptualize all of Craig Ranch and his courage to complete it, through economic hardships.
Now the golf industry, the United States and the world is in hardship.
“We have so much stress and anxiety on our plates,” Pillsbury said. “To have this respite is important in two ways. One, it’s a bright spot right now. It gives us something to be positive about.
“But it’s bigger than right now. It also gives us hope and confidence that we will come out of this. And there is going to be an event in May of 2021 at TPC Craig Ranch. That’s something we can all look forward to.
“All of us need that right now.”