(Photo by Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)
After 35 years at the TPC Four Seasons Resort Dallas at Las Colinas, the tournament shifted in 2018 to the new links-style Trinity Forest Golf Club just south of downtown Dallas, with the hope that it could become a magnet for economic development in that part of the city. But unfavorable weather, disappointing attendance, declining financial results, logistical challenges and a lack of support from Tour players has led to a decision to look for a new venue in the Dallas area after this year’s event.
After two years of weather setbacks, disappointing attendance and declining financial results, the PGA Tour has decided that the 2020 AT&T Byron Nelson in May will be the last one held at Trinity Forest Golf Club, The Dallas Morning News reported.
The Tour’s decision to pull the plug on Trinity Forest, which is just south of downtown Dallas, will end an innovative initiative by the PGA Tour, the Salesmanship Club of Dallas and the private golf club to use the Tour’s annual event as a magnet for economic development in the city’s southern sector, the Morning News reported.
Trinity Forest was built in 2014 over a toxic landfill, and its 18-hole, 72-par course was designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw of Coore & Crenshaw Inc. as an environmentally sensitive, rugged and natural, links-style championship course, the Morning News reported. The city of Dallas owns the land, and the Trinity Golf Club leases it. The Salesmanship Club, through its charitable golf organization, hosts the AT&T Nelson event wherever and whenever the Tour decides to play it.
AT&T, which took over the tournament’s title sponsorship in 2015, used its clout to get the Tour to move the event to Dallas’ southern sector in 2018, the Morning News reported, leaving the TPC Four Seasons Resort Dallas at Las Colinas, where it had been held for 35 years.
While the PGA Tour hasn’t yet decided where the 2021 Nelson will be, the Morning News reported, a likely contender is the TPC Four Seasons in the Dallas area. PGA Frisco—two championship courses being built by the PGA of America (a separate entity from the Tour), Omni Stillwater Woods and the city of Frisco—won’t be finished for three years.
The Tour is exploring other options around North Texas, Tyler Dennis, Chief of Operations at the PGA Tour, told the Morning News. “As the necessary footprint to grow the event continues to expand, collectively, we will be evaluating other facilities in the Dallas area for 2021 to ensure a premium fan experience and allow the Salesmanship Club to continue to do great things through its support of the Momentous Institute,” Dennis said.
All involved seemed to agree that the move is necessary because the substantial loss of revenue while the tournament has been held at Trinity Forest has hurt the Salesmanship Club’s Momentous Institute, the sole beneficiary of the tournament’s net proceeds, the Morning News reported.
Founded by the club in 1920, the widely lauded nonprofit provides innovative education and therapeutic services for 5,500 children and family members each year, with more than 100,000 served since its inception.
The Nelson has raised more than $163 million for Momentous in the last 51 years, making it the most successful charity event on the PGA Tour, the Morning News reported.
But tournament expenses went up and ticket and sponsorship revenue declined sharply after the move to Trinity Forest. Net contributions to Momentous peaked at more than $6 million at the Nelson’s final Four Seasons event. The 2019 Nelson netted less than half that amount, the club said, and that meant budget cutbacks at Momentous for this academic year.
“We all thought [the move to Trinity Forest] was going to be something that would actually increase revenues,” said Mike McKinley, chairman of Salesmanship Charitable Golf of Dallas Inc., which oversees the upcoming 2020 tournament that begins May 4. “The fact that it’s gone in a different direction has disappointed everybody involved and is the primary concern.
“The Salesmanship Club’s only focus is the Momentous Institute,” McKinley added. “Our ability to change the odds for kids in the Dallas area and transform the lives of kids and families—most of whom that we serve live in southern Dallas—is more meaningful to us than anything else. That drives everything that we do.”
Jonas Woods, co-founder of Trinity Forest, echoed those sentiments: “Most important to all of us is the amazing work of Momentous. We understand the need for this change. We must pivot to continue supporting the services needed by these children and families in our southern sector.”
Jessica Trudeau, Executive Director of Momentous, said she’s had to cut expenses while maintaining programs for some of Dallas’ most underserved, the Morning News reported.
“I’m so grateful that the Salesmanship Club and the PGA Tour are thinking about the long-term sustainability and viability of Momentous Institute,” she said. “My understanding is that our welfare was a significant factor in forming this decision.”
The city of Dallas is not a party in the agreements with the Tour, but was briefed about the change in a meeting that was described by Salesmanship Club officials as amicable, the Morning News reported
“We are disappointed to hear the AT&T Byron Nelson will no longer be held at the Trinity Forest Golf Course after this year, but the tournament’s departure opens up other potential opportunities to offer more recreational activities to our city’s residents and visitors at this southern Dallas asset,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said after hearing of the decision. “We look forward to discussing the course’s future with our partners there.”
McKinley said the Salesmanship Club still supports Trinity Forest, the Morning News reported. “We absolutely believe that [building the course] remains a great, noble cause,” he said. “And while the Tour has determined that, for its long-term purposes, the tournament should be played elsewhere, we’ve got other programs in place there. We’re going to host other events there that aren’t directly related to the AT&T Byron Nelson.
“This isn’t the end of the story on Trinity Forest,” McKinley said.
Trinity Forest is the home of the SMU Mustangs men’s and women’s college golf teams, the Morning News reported, and is also the host location for the Bush Institute Warrior Open, the American Junior Golf Association’s Under Armour/Jordan Spieth Championship and a half dozen charity tournaments. And the First Tee of Greater Dallas, the Tour’s outreach youth program, has its facility next to Trinity Forest’s practice complex.
AT&T’s sponsorship of the Nelson tournament runs through 2021, the Morning News reported, and if the communications giant is upset about uprooting the tournament, it isn’t saying so publicly.
“We were proud to answer the call and step up to help the community five years ago by becoming the sponsor of the Byron Nelson tournament, because it benefits thousands of local kids and family members,” an AT&T spokesman told the Morning News. “Our commitment to the community and the tournament continues today.”
Analysis of what went wrong with holding the tournament at Trinity Forest started with severe weather, with a record heat wave on a shadeless course in 2018 and unrelenting, miserably cold rain in year two, the Morning News reported.
While the course didn’t flood, the area immediately surrounding it did, creating an insurmountable logistical problem because vehicles used to move supplies and to shuttle spectators were forced to share the cart paths with 50,000 spectators who were trying to watch golf.
“Having all of that co-exist on cart paths is impossible,” Woods told the Morning News. “We realized last year that losing a very important artery of infrastructure because of weather creates a problem from a safety and an operations perspective. That’s just one of several problematic things that the weather pointed out.”
The road along the course boundary is in an environmental area protected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, so it can’t be raised high enough to keep it from being submerged, the Morning News reported. And the course is covered by a two-foot cap of clay, to keep toxic materials from oozing out. That cap can’t be penetrated, which meant that it was much more expensive to anchor temporary venues than it was at TPC Four Seasons.
A Tour spokesman declined to say whether player resistance contributed to the decision, the Morning News reported. But the Nelson at Trinity Forest took a beating in player and spectator social-media posts for its lack of parking and shade. Only four of the top 20 players in the world competed there in 2018 and just two last year. Both tournaments were won by first-time winners who haven’t won again. The final Nelson at the TPC Four Seasons had nine of the world’s top 20 players, including four of the top six.
One group the links-style Trinity Forest course did attract was talented international players, many of whom didn’t play the event at TPC Four Seasons, the Morning News reported. But despite a vow from Dallas resident and Trinity Forest member Jordan Spieth to do his best to recruit his friends to play in the event, the Trinity Forest-era Nelson tournaments struggled to attract high-profile American golfers.
One particularly hard knock came from fan-favorite Matt Kuchar, when he played in 2018. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” Kuchar told The Golf Channel after his first round.
After his second round, Kuchar said, “I’m mostly disappointed with myself that I probably let my dislike of the golf course affect my performance. As a professional, if they put 18 holes in a field and tell you this is where the tournament is, you go figure out how to play it.” But he did not return in 2019.
“We expected the fields to get better and they did not,” Woods conceded. But he attributed that to other factors and not the course.
“The vast majority of the players—like the 90-plus percentile—thought the golf course was fantastic,” Woods said. “But the other inconveniences with the location, the infrastructure and amenities weren’t ideal.”
Changing the date of the Nelson to the week before the PGA Championship meant that some players were resting, Woods added. “The fields before the PGA Championship are always weaker than the average field on tour,” he said.
Whiile the Salesmanship Club has learned to control costs related to the tournament, McKinley said, it but hasn’t been able to offset the continuing drain in ticket and sponsorship revenue, and so far, revenue for 2020 is tracking lower than last year, the Morning News reported.
“We’re trying things to turn that around,” said McKinley, the co-founding partner of a Dallas law firm.
For many people, the Morning News noted, watching golf at the Nelson is secondary to people-watching and socializing. While attendees were used to convenient parking and the ability to finish the day with an evening meal at a hip nearby restaurant in Las Colinas, only a handful of small restaurants offering comfort food could be found near Trinity Forest.
So the Salesmanship club is now paying more attention to on-course entertainment value, the Morning News reported.
The main pavilion last year was sponsored by the Katy Trail Ice House, the Morning News reported.. “It was great. It was packed at all times,” McKinley said. “This year, we’re doing even more. It’s like, ‘OK, Dallas, we heard you. Here’s what’s coming next.’
“While that might further impact the bottom line this year, the Salesmanship Club is determined that this 2020 tournament will be a grand finale for Trinity Forest,” McKinley added. “Those people in Dallas who haven’t had the great experience of seeing this awesome golf course need to come out and see the tournament.”