Top players are committing a rank offense

For the first time since 1967, when what had been christened the Dallas Open in 1944 was last played under that banner, the tournament named for Byron Nelson will be staged without its namesake. Unfortunately, it will also be staged without 11 of the top 15 players in the Official World Golf Ranking. Seems like a less than satisfactory way to say goodbye to one of the game's greats.

Lord Byron, the sweet swinger with an even sweeter personality, passed away on Sept. 26 last year at the age of 94, the last of the remarkable threesome that included Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, born within six months of each other in 1912. And while we all knew it was loyalty to Nelson that brought many of the top players to the Dallas area every May, no one really expected the big names to start jumping ship so soon after his death. Seems like one final tribute would have been appropriate.

When the filing date for the EDS Byron Nelson Championship came and went last Friday, the most common excuse offered up by the no-shows was "a scheduling conflict." And that was from those who felt obliged to even come up with a note from their parents as to why they were skipping school. And school was exactly what Nelson's tournament was. It was a place where players learned from the consummate gentleman how to behave. Apparently it was not a lesson that stayed with many.

The biggest name, of course, among those missing this week is Tiger Woods, whose loyalty to Nelson was expressed in eight appearances at Byron's tournament. But Woods, who will likely play next week at the Wachovia Championship, will join top-15 players Jim Furyk, Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Henrik Stenson, Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogilvy, Padraig Harrington, Paul Casey, an ailing Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson in skipping the tournament.

Among those, Immelman finished second in last year's tournament, Scott tied for third and Els was T-13, so it's not like the guys can't handle the two courses where the event is played. The only ones among the top 15 who will be in this year's field are Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia. Oh, last year's winner Brett Wetterich will be back to defend his title.

The EDS Byron Nelson Classic is one of the best-run events on the PGA Tour, with some of the best hospitality anywhere in tournament golf. So it's not for want of being coddled that the players are staying away. And the Salesmanship Club, the organization that runs the tournament, is always at or near the top of the list in terms of charitable contributions on tour. So that's not a problem. Why then are players staying away?

The easy answer is the scheduling conflict excuse. But the irony there is that in an era when all of the top players travel by private jet, they are finding it more difficult to get to tournaments than the guys back in the days when Byron and the boys drove four to a car from tournament to tournament. The more complicated answer -- and probably the correct one -- is that very few of today's millionaires appreciate the fact that it was guys like Nelson, who struggled to make ends meet, who made today's PGA Tour possible.

There is a sense of entitlement among contemporary players that is totally out of proportion with both their achievement and their sacrifice. That sense of entitlement tends to view the world through me-colored lenses. Just as last year the one PGA Tour event all players should have been tripping over each other to enter was in New Orleans, the one must-make tournament this year should have been the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. And it had nothing to do with prize money or scheduling. It had everything to do with what was right.

There will be a golf tournament this week at Las Colinas and Cottonwood Valley. There will be a party at the TPC Four Seasons Resort. And there will be tributes to the life and career of Byron Nelson at the tournament that bears his name. And knowing the first-class way the Salesmanship Club does things, it will be a celebration that will not only be worth remembering, it will be so compelling there will be no choice but to remember it.

One of the things that keeps the LPGA an organization that respects its past is the help it has in remembering that past because a half-dozen of its founders are still alive to remind the young players that it was not always as nice and easy as it now is. The PGA Tour, being about 20 years older than the LPGA, has lost most of its direct connection to its roots. In Byron Nelson, it lost one of the most important.

Nelson was not the kind of guy who would grab a player and say, "Hey, don't ever lose appreciation for what you have." Or, "Don't ever forget that the game made you, you didn't make the game." Byron didn't have to use words like that. His actions said it much more eloquently. It seems, however, that not all the players were listening.

There will be a celebration this week at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. One of the game's greatest players -- 18 victories in a season, 11 in a row -- and one of its greatest people will be remembered, the man who walked away from the game at the age of 34 to become a rancher. There will be cheers and there will be tears. And the real losers, the ones who will miss out on something they will never be able to replace, will be the players who chose to be elsewhere rather than in Texas to honor the life of a man who never thought he was bigger than the game of golf.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.