The phones ring like crazy every year at the Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open office in the days leading up to the golf tournament.
So for those scrambling to field the calls, there are probably better ways to quantify the interest and curiosity generated by PGA Tour veteran and Derby resident Woody Austin's decision to play in this week's Nationwide Tour event at Crestview Country Club.
Suffice it to say there is some buzz for a three-time tour winner who slugged it out with Tiger Woods on the final day of a major four years ago. And who happens to be one of the most accomplished golfers with a Kansas mailing address.
"We have run into a lot of people at the club who have come in and said, 'Hey, that is cool,' " assistant tournament director Debbie Burch said. "There's been an interest on the part of sponsors and volunteers and spectators."
For Austin, 47, there will be opposing forces at work when he plays in the Wichita Open for the first time in 13 years. On one hand, the Florida native is embracing the opportunity to compete in his adopted hometown, even committing to play in the Monday evening shootout event that unofficially marks the start of tournament week.
On the other, the straight-shooting Austin is trying to put the brakes on a gradual career skid since 2007, when he won his last tour event and battled Woods to the wire before finishing second at the PGA Championship in Tulsa. When Austin finished 129th on the 2010 PGA Tour money list, he lost his full-time playing privileges on the big tour, where he played at least 24 tournaments every year since 1999.
"The key for me was whether I thought I could play worth a darn," Austin said prior to the start of the PGA Tour's FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, where he competed Thursday and Friday before missing the weekend cut. "I'm sure there will be a few people who might be interested in coming to watch me play.
"Therein lies another part of wanting to play well. I don't want to have my wife and kids and whoever else out there, and I can't play a lick. That would be very embarrassing."
Austin, who has played eight of 24 possible weeks on the PGA Tour this year and in two Nationwide events, got a sign he needed last week. Despite failing to earn a spot in the U.S. Open, Austin shot 7-under par in a 36-hole sectional qualifier in Tunica, Miss. That was two strokes shy of a playoff that could have landed him at Congressional Country Club this week, but Austin was encouraged by his performance.
"I saw some good signs (Monday)," Austin said. "I'm still driving it really bad. But if I can figure out a way to get off the tee, everything else is coming together."
Austin followed an opening-round 70 with a 5-under 67 in the qualifier. That brightened his mood heading to nearby Memphis, where he won the 2007 St. Jude Classic.
That year, Austin had the luxury of setting his own playing schedule by virtue of his performances. Those days are gone, as Austin didn't play in his first PGA Tour event until the second week of February. Without his tour card, Austin attempted to solicit sponsor exemptions from several tournaments, but landed just one. He was awarded a spot into the Transitions Championship in Tampa, Fla. —Austin's birthplace — and tied for 37th, his best finish of the season.
"I'm really disappointed in the lack of sponsor exemptions," Austin said. "Being in my 17th year on tour and playing all the tournaments as many years as I have — and playing well in some of them — I really thought I'd get more.
"That's the problem with playing really bad last year. I've put it in somebody else's hands. You're kind of at their mercy."
Austin played in the Nationwide's Stadion Classic in early May, his first event on the developmental tour in 12 years. In between, he competed in 362 PGA Tour events and won twice. His other Nationwide start came at the BMW Charity Pro-Am. Austin pocketed $5,270 in those tournaments.
"It's hard for me to say how much the Nationwide has changed since the last time I was out there," Austin said. "The two events I played were entirely different. The first was at a college course and there really wasn't a lot of fan support. The second, being a pro-am format, had a little different involvement and more people came out."
Wichita Open tournament director Roy Turner, who has enhanced fan amenities for this year's tournament with larger grandstand areas on the last two holes, received Austin's commitment on Tuesday. Turner knew the possibility of Austin playing had existed for months.
"I was disappointed for Woody that he didn't qualify for the U.S. Open, but I'm elated he's going to play in Wichita," Turner said. "A lot of people in the community may not know a lot about the Nationwide Tour, but they do know about Woody. I think this might help some people understand just how good all of these players are."
Each year, the Wichita Open includes competitors who have graduated to the PGA Tour, only to return to the Nationwide after failing to retain their tour cards. Austin managed to keep his foothold longer than many.
In his last Wichita Open appearance, Austin tied for ninth when the tournament was played at Willowbend Golf Club. He finished eighth on the money list of what was then called the Nike Tour and started a lengthy second run on the PGA Tour the following season.
While Austin participates in an annual fund-raiser for the Wichita Children's Home at Crestview, he said he has only played the entire North course one time.
"I just need to keep playing," Austin said. "You don't want to play when you're playing (badly). I haven't played enough. You can hit all the range balls you want, but if you're not in tournaments and hitting shots in tournament conditions, it doesn't really matter how much you practice."