Two Sundays ago, I grabbed a Lyft down to Trinity Forest. My driver asked if I was going to ride horses. I said I was actually going to watch golf, for it was the weekend of the AT&T Byron Nelson. He remembered taking carfuls of fancied-up golf partiers to Las Colinas two years ago, but knew nothing of the move to southern Dallas. He said he hadn’t driven a soul to the course over the last three days.
Just one, very imprecise data point, I thought. At the tournament, the weather was beautiful. It was in the mid-70s with a crisp little wind, and you could wander up to the ropes and watch the leader, Sung Kang, sink tournament-sealing birdies down the stretch. It made for amazing access, although your wheels did turn about what it meant for the tournament. But again, merely anecdotal.
Today, we get real data on how things went at the Nelson. Tournament Director Jon Drago says attendance at Trinity Forest Golf Club reached 144,000 people this year, based on preliminary data from concessions. That’s down about 28 percent from 2018. It’s also just over half the attendance of 2017, the final year the tournament took place at the TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas, when 280,000 people came out.
(Drago says the tournament doesn’t track attendance based on ticket scans. When it’s really busy, its volunteer staff checks but does not necessarily scan the tickets. Additional metrics from its parking company could come in later this week; I’ll update this post if they change anything.)
Weather on the other days of the weekend didn’t help matters. Rain washed out Saturday morning’s play, and Drago says that cut the day’s attendance in half from last year. Cold temperatures on Friday hurt, as well. (He estimates attendance on Sunday was actually up a bit.) Conditions were very different than those in 2018, when temperatures touched the mid-90s at a course where there’s nowhere to hide.
“We focused on the spectator experience,” says Drago. “And it’s a little bit ironic, because we spent the entire summer working on providing additional shade for people because we realized down there at that site, because of the lack of trees and because it was a landfill, the heat can feel hotter. So we wanted to bring shade.” Organizers also prioritized controlling the dust, improving the rideshare experience, helping people find their ways around the course, and bringing back some energy that was missing last year.
Results were mixed. Dust was a non-issue because of the rain, despite the breeze and minor gusts. I joined a large contingent of people trekking back across the course to the main entrance to catch an Uber after watching the tournament end on 18—a not insignificant jaunt—but the rideshare stations themselves ran smoothly. Finding your way around the course was easy. Katy Trail Ice House sponsored a sizable pavilion, with good shade and music you could hear a fairway or two away. There were several VIP hubs. I had a great time. But yes, energy-wise, there just weren’t enough bodies.
After the tournament, the outspoken top American golfer Brooks Koepka, whose words suddenly carry some pretty big weight in the golf world, said he’d rather play the Four Seasons.
Brooks Koepka said he preferred the Byron Nelson’s previous course to its current home at Trinity Forest: “It was fun to play. A lot more people — the fans definitely turned out a little bit more.”
— Baby Boy (@Ben_Baby) May 12, 2019
For his part, Drago says Koepka originally expressed interest in playing the Byron. The golfer reportedly said he likes playing the week before a major. Drago recalled Koepka saying that he’d watched on TV in 2018 and “thought the course looked cool and wanted to play it.” Drago says he’s undeterred by the comments, and that you’ll always have some players that embrace the course and some who don’t.
“Ten years from now, this conversation will be a lot different from today,” he says.
The Nelson contracted with Trinity Forest for 10 tournaments in all—eight more—according to Drago, despite media reports that have put the end date as early as 2021. (For what it’s worth, course developer Jonas Woods also said, via email, that the contract runs through 2027.) I asked whether the tournament could conceivably pull out of the contract should attendance not be where it needs to be. “There’s been no discussion about it,” says Drago. “There’s certainly no clause that triggers, or anything like that.”
He says he will measure success over the next few years by gradual increases in attendance and sales and energy, as well as noticing more general buzz around the event. But for now, he maintains the Byron is committed to a successful transition to Trinity Forest, and that the tour is behind that mission.
“We wanted to be part of this vision that was years in discussion,” he says. “Which is to reclaim this old abandoned landfill, bring the PGA Tour, and bring this economic engine to southern Dallas.”