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Breaking new ground: Byron Nelson field survives, thrives at unfamiliar links-like venue

May 18, 2018
DALLAS — The first round of the AT&T Byron Nelson came and went on the much-scrutinized layout at Trinity Forest and, alas, a golfing apocalypse did not occur.
The adjacent Trinity River did not run backward. Cats and dogs and snakes did not lay down in harmony together. And the world’s best golfers — who are rarely shy to opine about course design and conditions — were mostly positive about the wide-open, topsy-turvy Ben Crenshaw-Bill Coore neo-links design that is unlike anything they have experienced on this side of the Atlantic. 
Indeed, on Thursday the pros did what they do best: They adapted, overcame and went about their jobs.
Marc Leishman, an Australian with a propensity for going low, went really low, posting a two-eagle, 10-under-par 61 to grab the 18-hole lead. Trailing him by three, in a tie for second, is the duo of J.J. Spaun and Jimmy Walker. Eight players are knotted at six under, while de facto tournament host and Trinity Forest member Jordan Spieth is eight back, at two under par.
“You know we’re pretty good at this,” said Matt Kuchar (72) of adjusting to an unfamiliar course. “Give us a yardage book and a chance to make some notes and we can usually figure it out.” 
Which isn’t to say Kuchar is a huge fan of the new site. When asked for his take on Trinity, Kuchar slyly referenced the former Nelson venue.
“I really liked Las Colinas. That place was great,” he said. “I really, really enjoyed Las Colinas.” 
Temperatures crept into the mid-90s in the first round on the nearly treeless property on a former garbage dump south of downtown Dallas, but there was barely a breath of wind. Still, few players tore apart the course — with either their play or their criticism.
“That’s always a concern with a new course because so many people put their heart and soul into making this work,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who walked part of the layout during Wednesday’s pro-am to gauge the players’ reactions for himself.
Also on site to get in-person feedback was AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who was signing the multi-million dollar check as title sponsor, and designers Coore and Crenshaw who mingled with sponsors and players before and after Thursday’s opening round.
One of the harshest assessments came from the spicy six-time Tour winner Rory Sabbatini, who posted an opening 66. 
“Today was good,” he said, “but I told the rules official it’s all on them how they set up the course — it can be good or it can be a disaster.”
Spieth came into the week saying he had shot some really low scores at Trinity Forest but also a few high scores. He did a bit of both Thursday, settling for an opening 69.
In the run-up to the tournament there had been months of chatter from players and Tour officials alike about what the rookie course would look like the first time it was played in competition by the best players in the world.
Most of the top golfers voted with their feet as they stayed away in droves. More than 40 players in the top 50 of the FedEx Cup standings took the week off, with only six in the top 20 in attendance this week.
“It’s a weak field, no doubt, probably the weakest of the year, but it’s a learning curve for everybody,” Kuchar said. 
Kuchar added that he used to stay away from the Tampa event at Innnisbrook because he had heard some negative things about that course, but watched it on TV and decided he wanted to play.
Many of the players who did show — a blend of youngsters, journeymen and former Nelson winners, including 2016 champion Sergio Garcia — came early and studied hard.
“Look at this putting green for a Tuesday,” Ernie Els said with a touch of bemusement earlier in the week. “You’d think it’s a major there are so many people here.”
Adam Scott, the 2008 Nelson champ, said there was was so much discussion about Trinity Forest in Tour locker rooms this spring that he visited Google Earth to research the course for himself before he committed to play.
“There is no doubt it hurt us,” Jon Drago, the Nelson tournament director, said of conducting an event on a newbie venue. “But for the players who showed up, it’s been a non-factor. I haven’t heard any negative feedback.”
Added Harrison Frazar, the former Tour pro turned Trinity Forest tournament director: “That’s the way it usually goes — people assume the worst. But the worst didn’t happen.”
Aaron Wise, who had the early lead Thursday after a 65, called the design “fair,” adding, “it’s certainly a course worth playing and I think other players will discover that.”
So for one day, anyway, there was minimum carnage, chaos and complaining.
Of course, it’s still early on the North Texas prairie.