TPC Craig Ranch is the new home of the AT&T Byron Nelson. Can it learn from the tournament’s failures at Trinity Forest Golf Club?

MCKINNEY — Rain is a four-letter word in the golf community — and not just in the literal sense.

It brings cancellations, postponements and other logistical nightmares to tournaments big and small. It serves as a kryptonite to pristine courses that assemble small armies to fine-tune every minute detail leading up to a major event, only to have Mother Nature say “not so fast” and throw a wrench in everyone’s plans. Good luck even hearing the word spoken aloud by organizers when tournament week rolls around, lest they tempt fate and jinx their way into weather-induced disarray.

But a recent memorable downpour brings no such headaches or heartaches to the brain trust behind the AT&T Byron Nelson’s latest venue change. Instead, it stands alone on an island as a rain event tied to nothing but fond memories of the day where “a dream came true,” according to enigmatic developer and businessman David Craig. One that was more than 20 years in the making.

It was 7:30 a.m. on March 4, 2020 — just two weeks before the 2020 Nelson at host course Trinity Forest became a casualty of the pandemic. Craig, the namesake for the 2,200-acre Craig Ranch development in McKinney that includes TPC Craig Ranch, had gotten what he referred to as his “dream team” to congregate at the course to make a pitch for it to become the new home of the Nelson, something those at the TPC Four Seasons had already done the previous month.

On the guest list: mayors, ex-mayors, city managers, CEOs, COOs, presidents, VPs and directors. Oh, and rain. Lots and lots of rain.

“Frankly, nobody should have shown up,” said ClubCorp CEO David Pillsbury, one of the members in attendance that day. “It was raining so hard it didn’t make any sense to even be on the road.”

Maybe the members of Craig’s hand-picked crew scheduled to participate in the meeting shouldn’t have shown up, as Pillsbury suggested. But they did. All of them. And the dream-teamers in attendance made sure their inconvenient trek into unfavorable weather conditions wasn’t for naught as they made their case that it was time to move the Nelson to Collin County for the first time in tournament history.

A month later, TPC Craig Ranch was officially announced as the new home for the Nelson for the next five years. And it all came together thanks to that face-to-face meeting on that rainy day in March — the only face-to-face meeting that needed to happen, thanks to a combination of just how well everything went and the ramifications of the pandemic that were soon to follow.

Logistics meetings occurred in the weeks and months to follow on Zoom. Course improvements had been underway even before the Nelson announcement — ClubCorp purchased the course in early 2019, and course superintendent Jim Osborne said his staff nearly doubled in size between ClubCorp’s purchase and the Nelson announcement, with more growth since. Construction for hospitality and other patron attractions has been underway in earnest since early March.

With the long runway finally nearing its end and the Nelson about to actually take place for the first time in more than 700 days, one key question still remains: Can the tournament succeed at its new home?

‘Big-boy golf course’

Hole no. 18 at TPC Craig Ranch on Wednesday, May 6, 2021in McKinney, Texas. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Hole no. 18 at TPC Craig Ranch on Wednesday, May 6, 2021in McKinney, Texas. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)(Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

Craig’s attempts to win over the PGA Tour so he could host an event started four years before he even had a finished course that could host a tournament.

The Tom Weiskopf-designed course didn’t open until 2004, but Craig was already in touch with the Tour in 2000 to get input on what to prioritize if the goal is to get the course to host Tour events. And that was the goal, Craig said, noting specifically that “we built this golf course anticipating that we would host a significant event.”

“We call this a big-boy golf course,” he said. “Back in 2000 when we were negotiating with the Tour, 7,450 [yards] was a long golf course. And that’s what this is. I could just tell you that the dream of having the Byron Nelson at that time — we did everything in our power to land it sooner than now, but it wasn’t in the cards. It wasn’t our time. But now it’s just unbelievable how things come together.”

The 7,450-yard length is about 300 yards longer than TPC Four Seasons played and about 100 yards shorter than Trinity Forest. TPC Craig Ranch has Rowlett Creek cross the course on more than 10 occasions, creating a number of challenging shots for golfers as well as picturesque views for patrons. The course presents some great risk-reward situations, according to Osborne, and has a great mix of “easier, shorter, fun holes” and holes that play “big and tough.”

“If people haven’t seen the course before, I think they’ll walk away thinking it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Along with golf elements, part of Craig’s reasoning behind consulting with the Tour in advance of building the course was to make sure it would be ideal for hosting events from a patron and hospitality standpoint. There are a number of areas on the course, particularly on the back nine, where multiple holes run together and create spots on the course where patrons can be surrounded by action.

“It’s very fan-friendly,” Craig said. “The stadium configuration is perfect for fans and the flow of foot traffic.”

This will be TPC Craig Ranch’s first PGA Tour event. But it’s no stranger to championship golf. The course has hosted Tour Championship events for the Nationwide Tour (2008) and the Tour (2012).

“[Holes] 16, 17 and 18 all kind of bring everybody together as the players come down the stretch,” Nelson tournament director Jon Drago said. “It really should create that excitement that we’re looking for.”

Lessons learned

Hole no. 18 at TPC Craig Ranch on Wednesday, May 6, 2021in McKinney, Texas. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Hole no. 18 at TPC Craig Ranch on Wednesday, May 6, 2021in McKinney, Texas. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)(Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

When the Nelson made the move from Irving to Trinity Forest in 2018, there was a four-year agreement for the unique links-style course built on an old landfill in southern Dallas to host the tournament. Only two of those four tournaments actually came to fruition, though, thanks to the cancellation of the 2020 event and the decision to break the contract with Trinity Forest a year early and move the 2021 tournament to McKinney.

Frankly, there are many reasons the tournament didn’t succeed at its new venue. Some were self-inflicted. Others were completely out of Trinity Forest’s hands.

In 2018, a heat wave brought on near-record high temperatures, with the first three days of the tournament seeing highs of 94, 97 and 93 degrees. In the second round alone, approximately 50 people were treated for heat-related issues. Then when the final round came along, it was the opposite end of the spectrum. An unforecasted storm came through Sunday morning and postponed the final round by four hours, leaving the tournament’s conclusion to be played in front of sparse crowds.

The following year, more inclement weather wiped out the Wednesday pro-am. And lengthy Saturday delays meant late afternoon tee times for the third round, and a Sunday on which golfers had to complete their third rounds in the morning before playing out their final rounds later in the day.

Clearly, folks at Trinity Forest couldn’t do anything to prevent the rain. Chalk that up to bad luck. It wasn’t the first time a Nelson has been delayed by rain, and it won’t be the last. But when it comes to the issues with the heat, a treeless course with very little manufactured shade to supplement the lack of natural protection from the sun seemed shortsighted before the tournaments started and is even more perplexing with the benefit of hindsight.

Along with the lack of shade, some of the other major criticisms of the Nelson during its short run in southern Dallas included the lack of nearby parking and the absence of any sort of entertainment or infrastructure around the venue.

Fans had to park 10 miles from the course at Fair Park then take a 15- to 20-minute shuttle ride to the course. While the logistics improved from year to year, there were multiple complaints about lengthy lines to board the shuttles early in the process. Building a course on a landfill means it will exist in an area that was previously surrounding a landfill.

Nearby entertainment or lodging options were nonexistent. There were hopes of using the course as a catalyst for growth to surrounding areas, but no such movement has happened. And with the Nelson moving away from southern Dallas, odds are long of that coming to fruition anytime soon.

Members of Craig’s dream team were very aware of Trinity Forest’s shortcomings, and centered part of their pitch around the fact that so many of the issues that plagued the Nelson at its previous venue would be avoided if the tournament moved north. A large number of Trinity Forest’s weaknesses were actually key TPC Craig Ranch selling points.

Parking issues? Gone are the days of lengthy shuttle rides. For future full-capacity Nelsons, all parking will be within five minutes of the course, thanks to an agreement with McKinney ISD that was lined up in advance of “the rainy day meeting.”

“Certainly no club has been built in anticipation for parking tens of thousands of people at any given time, so logistics was a primary discussion that had to be held ahead of time,” McKinney Mayor George Fuller said.

Heat fears? No worries there, either. There’s certainly no shortage of shade throughout TPC Craig Ranch’s course, which is heavily insulated with trees.

There’s no such thing as a dearth of entertainment options around the course, either. McKinney has plenty of nearby restaurants and attractions and recently earned Money magazine’s distinction as the “No. 1 place to live in America.”

But attracting fans with premier on-site hospitality and things to do in nearby areas is only half the battle. A tournament’s ceiling for success will always be limited if there isn’t high-level golf being played by high-level players, too.

Luring Tour’s elite

Hole no. 1 at TPC Craig Ranch on Wednesday, May 6, 2021in McKinney, Texas. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)
Hole no. 1 at TPC Craig Ranch on Wednesday, May 6, 2021in McKinney, Texas. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)(Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

Fans watching the 2018 Nelson weren’t just treated to an unfamiliar course. They also experienced some unfamiliar names near the top of the leaderboard.

Aaron Wise was No. 96 in the world when he won the 2018 Nelson. Sung Kang was 138th the following year. Only one top-50 player (Marc Leishman) finished in the top 10 in 2018. Same goes for 2019 (Brooks Koepka). Those stats aren’t just indicative of a lack of high-end players in contention, either. Only four of the top 20 players in the world competed there in 2018. The following year, that number was cut in half. Both tournaments were won by first-time winners who haven’t won since.

“We expected the fields to get better, and they did not,” Jonas Woods, co-founder of Trinity Forest, told The News last year when it was announced the Nelson would leave southern Dallas. “The vast majority of the players — like the 90-plus percentile — thought the golf course was fantastic. But the other inconveniences with the location, the infrastructure and amenities weren’t ideal.”

While Nelsons at TPC Four Seasons weren’t impervious to occasional shaky fields (the tournament had three straight winners outside of the top 100 from 2013-15), the Nelson routinely had solid fields in the decades leading up to the tournament’s venue change in between the 2017 and 2018 events.

The 1990s produced winners such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. In the 2000s, fans got to see players such as Sergio Garcia, Vjiay Singh and Adam Scott hoist the Nelson trophy. The last two Nelsons at TPC Four Seasons produced a pair of exciting playoffs involving four household names on Tour: Garcia, Koepka, Billy Horschel and Jason Day.

This week’s Nelson field appears to be considerably stronger than the fields from the last two Nelsons at Trinity Forest. It has commitments from four top-10 players (Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau and Koepka) and pledges from numerous big-name golfers playing in their first Nelsons in at least a handful of years. Of the 10 highest-ranked players in this week’s Nelson field, only two players — reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and Dallas-based, AT&T-sponsored Jordan Spieth — played in both Nelsons held at Trinity Forest.

But there’s still ground to make up to reach the fields the Nelson was accustomed to having during its run at the TPC Four Seasons. In the Nelson’s final event at the TPC Four Seasons in 2017, the field boasted four of the top six players in the world, as well as nine of the top 20.

One thing the TPC Four Seasons had working in its favor — the Four Seasons resort right next to the course. At one time, the Four Seasons Resort was the only AAA Five Diamond Hotel in the state. Players such as Johnson lauded the hospitality and amenities available on-site and weren’t shy about their displeasure with the decision to move away from TPC Four Seasons.

While TPC Craig Ranch doesn’t currently have a luxurious resort packaged with the course to lure top-tier golfers, help is on the way. In 2017, through a public-private partnership with McKinney, plans were unveiled for a resort and conference center to be constructed adjacent to the TPC Craig Ranch. The resort will be branded under the Marriott Autograph Collection. It was originally planned to be finished in 2022, but some pandemic-related issues might bump that timeline back to 2023. There will be 285 rooms, 33,000 square feet of meeting space, multiple restaurants and a resort-style lazy river.

That may help bring a TPC Four Seasons feel back to Nelson week for players who considered those amenities to be major selling points to secure their commitments. But tournament organizers point out the high-end lodging options aren’t necessarily a selling point for the entire field. When the tournament was held in Irving, only about 20% to 25% of the players typically stayed at the actual Four Seasons resort. The majority opted to stay in nearby Las Colinas hotels that were a little more cost-effective for your average Tour player.

That’s more good news for McKinney, which has experienced major growth over the past few decades.

Salesmanship Club president Mike McKinley said when TPC Craig Ranch hosted the Tour Championship in 2012, you could count the number of hotels within a 5-mile radius of Craig Ranch on one hand. Fast forward to today, less than 10 years later, and that number is closer to 30.

Players staying off-site — and maybe more important, their families — will get resort-style perks courtesy of ClubCorp. All family members will be given membership privileges at nearby Stonebriar Country Club (a ClubCorp property) during tournament week.

Debut with an asterisk

Tens of thousands of patrons will walk the grounds of the TPC Craig Ranch this week and get to experience firsthand the tournament’s debut at its new venue. And that’s tens of thousands more people than there were last year, when the tournament didn’t even take place. But it’s also just a fraction of what the venue can hold — and expects to hold in future years.

Because of COVID restrictions, the Nelson will be welcoming about 25% of the capacity it can hold, and has held during prosperous times in Irving. In March, the tournament announced it planned to host 10,000 patrons per round, after getting the green light from the PGA Tour. That number has grown to 12,500.

Masks will be required at all times, except when actively eating or drinking. Attendees will be health-screened at all tournament entrances. Hand sanitizer stations will be located throughout the course. All sales transactions will be digital — there will be no cash options available. All tickets and pairings will be digital, too.

There will be no daily grounds tickets for sale. Fans looking to attend the event can still view action in person through hospitality options such as The Bunker or The Choctaw Club, but limited crowds mean limited hospitality options for this year’s tournament, too. That includes no Katy Ice Trail Pavilion.

In future years, Craig expects “fantastic hospitality,” especially toward the back end of the back nine. That’s where the Katy Ice Trail Pavilion will live for full-capacity events.

“[The 17th hole] is going to be a lot like 16 at Waste Management,” he said, referring to the stadium setting at the tournament in Phoenix. “We can hold 4 or 5 thousand just at that venue alone.”

For now, area golf fans will have to wait a year to see what the full Nelson experience at the TPC Craig Ranch will look like. But for people such as Craig, who have waited more than 20 years to get the Nelson to land at his course, patience has become a way of life.


AT&T Byron Nelson

When: Thursday-Sunday, May 16

Where: TPC Craig Ranch, McKinney

Defending champion: Sung Kang won his first PGA Tour title at Trinity Forest in 2019. The 2020 event was canceled

Purse: $8.1 million ($1.458 million to the winner)

Tickets: The tournament is sold out

Parking: $20 at the Lot 9.

TV: Thursday and Friday, 2:30-5:30 p.m. (Golf Channel); Saturday and Sunday, noon-2 p.m. (Golf Channel) and 2-5 p.m. (Ch. 11)

Bryson DeChambeau watches his tee shot on the third hole during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow Club on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

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