IRVING, Texas — The HP Byron Nelson Championship has one of its better fields in years this week.
Darren Carroll/Getty ImagesThis year’s Byron Nelson will be without Jordan Spieth, who made a name for himself the last two years at the tournament.
Matt Kuchar, fresh off winning The Players Championship, is here. So is Phil Mickelson, making his first appearance in five years. Other major winners such as Ernie Els, defending champion Keegan Bradley, Y.E. Yang and Vijay Singh will tee it up at TPC Four Seasons Resort & Club in Las Colinas this week.
But the Nelson seems to be a place for young golfers to emerge. Bradley battled the wind and the field for his first win last year and then went on to capture the PGA Championship. Before Jason Day was contending at the 2011 Masters, he had a confidence boost with a win at the Nelson.
It’s also a tournament that appreciates local talent. And it seems like somehow an area golfer — usually a young one — finds a way to become part of the storyline nearly every year.
The past two years, that was Jordan Spieth, who first competed in the Nelson in 2010 as a 16-year-old and was actually on the first page of the leaderboard midway through his final round before fading. He captured the headlines and drew large galleries. He returned in 2011 and was once again competitive. But this year, he’s got college golf to play at the University of Texas.
So who could emerge as the local story for this year’s event? There are plenty of choices, but here are four to watch:
Scott Halleran/Getty Images for GolfweekDenton Ryan and SMU product Kelly Kraft received a boost from his first Masters experience.
“I grew up going to the Nelson,” Kraft said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been there. It was probably every year growing up. I always dreamed about playing in it.”
Now, that dream becomes a reality after the 23-year-old Kraft, who went to Denton Ryan High School and played college golf at SMU, received a sponsor’s exemption. It continues a wild past year for Kraft, who burst onto the national golf scene by winning the U.S. Amateur Championship in 2011. That win earned him a trip to the Masters in 2012.
“I went from not really knowing what I was going to do to having a plan,” Kraft said. “I thought I was going to have to go to Q-school and thought I’d be turning pro and then I won the U.S. Amateur and things changed.”
Kraft stayed an amateur to play on the U.S. Walker Cup team and in the Masters. He made sure to make the most of his first Masters experience, staying at the Crow’s Nest and spending more than a week at Augusta National.
Kraft came to the 18th hole needing to make an 8-foot bending putt to continue to play on the weekend. He rolled it in and the crowd gave him a huge ovation.
“That was a big deal,” Kraft said. “I wanted to have the whole experience. You’re having fun and then the tournament comes and you’re teeing off and you want to play well and stick around for a few more days. Making that putt on 18 was a big deal to play the weekend. It gave me some confidence.”
Kraft turned professional the day after the Masters and has played in one PGA Tour event — in San Antonio. He didn’t make the cut.
“I can’t wait to play in the Nelson,” Kraft said. “It’s going to be great. I should have lots of family and friends cheering me on.”
It was Colt Knost‘s mother who finally spoke up and told her son he needed to go see a professional about his lack of confidence.
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesColt Knost’s focus on his mental game has produced results with his swing.
Knost had missed his third cut at the Memorial last year and his mom suggested he call a psychologist. The 26-year-old SMU product did, and Neale Smith has been working with him for nearly a year. Knost says it has helped turn his game around.
“The mental game is everything,” Knost said. “When I stay relaxed and calm, I play well. That’s my toughest deal. I get amped up or get down sometimes. I have to stay even.”
Knost’s mental improvement has mirrored his swing changes. He says he’s a more consistent ball striker now.
“My swing used to get around my body and off plane,” Knost said. “I’m working on getting it back on plane and that makes my consistency better. My ball flight is tighter and my misses are better. The trajectory hasn’t changed much, but the dispersion isn’t as much.”
Knost has seen results. He has two third-place finishes this season, his last one coming at Harbour Town. He was in the hunt down the stretch but wasn’t able to close the deal as Carl Pettersson won the event. Still, it was important for Knost to experience life in contention on a Sunday.
“I think I’m very close,” Knost said. “My confidence is really high right now. You have to put yourself in position out here and get used to being comfortable with it. Rickie Fowler has been as good a player as there is out here for three years and finally got his. You don’t know when it could happen. You have to stay patient and wait for it to come.”
Maybe it’s this week at the Nelson? Knost says he remembers how nervous he was in his first Nelson, which was also the first time he’d played in a PGA Tour event. He got the exemption to play before winning the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Public Links titles in 2007.
“I remember how nervous I was on Thursday and I didn’t play very well,” said Knost, who shot 74. “I don’t know what happened on Friday, but I played one of the best rounds of my life. I shot 64 and to play the way I did was pretty cool.”
Knost made the cut and finished tied for 67th as an amateur. After his two USGA wins later that summer, he turned professional.
“I’m looking forward to going out there and trying to win,” Knost said.
Paul Haley II
The 24-year-old, who played his golf at Georgia Tech, returns to a course close to his home. He grew up in Dallas and attended Highland Park, turning professional in 2011 after the U.S. Amateur.
Haley is playing on the Nationwide Tour and in just his third start earned his first victory, capturing the Chile Classic.
“It was a really good course for me,” Haley said. “Every part of my game was on. I played really well. It was huge for me. It helps knowing I can do it out there and I did get a lot of confidence from it.”
Haley also finished tied for second in a tournament a month ago in San Francisco. He’s currently third on the Nationwide Tour money list.
Haley received an exemption into the Nelson with a nod toward his local ties. It will be his first PGA Tour event.
“It’s something I’m looking forward to,” Haley said. “Not a lot of people get the opportunity. I can play in front of my friends and family. It’s going to be great.”
He’s not a 20-something anymore, but Hunter Haas remembers how important Byron Nelson and the local tournament were to him when he was just starting out as a professional.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFort Worth’s Hunter Haas is appreciative of the advice he received from tournament namesake Byron Nelson.
It was about 13 years ago that Haas, now 35 years old, picked up the phone and called Nelson, asking for advice. The call came shortly after Haas won the U.S. Public Links and was ready to get his professional career going.
“We met for lunch and I talked to him about things he’d done,” said Haas, who is from Fort Worth. “We had similar interests in woodworking. It was cool to go over to his home last year as part of the tournament and see everything.”
Haas, who has his own woodworking shop at his Southlake, Texas, home, is talking about the invitation that Peggy Nelson extended players and their families during last year’s event to come to Nelson’s ranch and see where he lived and enjoy food and fun.
Haas has four Nationwide Tour victories but has never won a PGA Tour event. Haas, though, feels like he’s getting closer.
“My game is coming around,” Haas said. “I had a slower start than last year, but it’s coming around. I’m hitting the ball better than last year. It’s a few things I’ve worked on with my swing. Just simple things like posture. [It's] nothing major.”