Bob Lutz

New-look Wichita Open hits home run

Roy Turner, the director of the Wichita Open, had a good weekend. The tournament drew some of its biggest crowds ever, he said. And you know how he knew? Because of all the trash he and tournament volunteers picked up on the course at Crestview North during the week.

The addition of double-decker grandstands around No. 17 have made it one of the most distinguishable — and loudest — holes on the Nationwide Tour, with its caddie races, cheeseburgers and, of course, alcohol consumption.

"It's the wild hole,'' said hole marshal Warren Carpenter, who has been assigned to No. 17 for a few years.

Local favorite Woody Austin played, drew nice crowds and finished six-under. And Woody, of course, beat himself up for not playing better. He was a nice added attraction to the tournament.

The top three finishers just happen to be the top three money winners on the Nationwide Tour in 2011: Matthew Goggin, Kyle Thompson and Troy Kelly finished 1-2-3 in the Wichita Open, Goggin using a clutch birdie on No. 18 to hold off Thompson, who also had a birdie after missing a 15-foot eagle putt.

But the star of the week was the Crestview North course. Trampled on for four days, it barely looked ruffled at the end of Sunday.

The three-year-old zoysia fairways and bent-grass greens were fit for kings.

"Purina,'' Austin called them. "The people here at Crestview should be extremely happy. The golf course, with the rains and the conditions, held up. The greens were absolutely perfect, no question about it.''

Austin, who drew nice crowds all four days, shot an even-par 71 during an up-and-down Sunday round.

If he entered the tournament to figure out what's been missing from his golf game, he's not sure he was successful.

"Disgustingly pathetic are the best words I can come with for how I played,'' said Austin, who slapped his leg twice after botching a chip attempt at No. 13, causing him to bogey the hole. They weren't love slaps, either. They probably left a mark.

"I can only play six to nine holes a day, but you can't play golf if you're just playing six to nine holes a day,'' he said. "I do know how to play, I just can't play anymore. And that's frustrating.''

Because everything fell so perfectly, including Austin's entertaining and sometimes uncomfortable antics, Turner called it the best Wichita Open he can remember.

"I could have probably asked for a playoff, but that's about the only thing I maybe could have changed,'' said the soccer coach turned golf tournament organizer. "I usually get tired, but we were so excited all week about the way things were going that I never did. I have lofty goals, but this was fantastic.''

I tried to tell Chad Stearns, Crestview's course superintendent, that he deserved a gold star. But he was having none of it.

"It's not just me, it all starts with my staff,'' Stearns said.

That staff includes 28 people whose job it is to make Crestview's north and south courses look pristine throughout the year. But they obviously turn it up a notch during the Wichita Open.

Four years ago, when the Crestview fairways were a combination of grasses, heavy rains forced the Wichita Open to adopt a lift, clean and place structure. That's the last thing any tournament wants and it led to the Crestview membership deciding to spend money on fairways and greens that would soak up water and battle through the hot Kansas sun.

"We watched balls plug four years ago and it was embarrassing,'' Stearns said. "Embarrassing.''

The new grasses are definitely one of the factors that have sent the Wichita Open into warp speed over the past few years.

This used to be a mild-mannered tournament. Couples walked down fairways holding hands. Fathers explained golf to their sons while watching some of the best up-and-comers in the world.

Now it's all out pandemonium thanks to the growth of the gallery on No. 17, which gets the attention of every golfer who comes through.

"It's cool,'' Austin said.

And if Woody thinks it's cool, then it's cool.

Turner was a tad worried that moving the Wichita Open from its normal spot in late August to the middle of June and a head-to-head battle with the U.S. Open would hurt crowds.

That didn't happen.

But it doesn't mean Turner isn't ecstatic that next year's Wichita Open will start a week later and will not conflict with the U.S. Open.

"One thing, though, is that our field this year was as strong as it has ever been thanks to the U.S. Open,'' Turner said. "A lot of the guys who were here weren't able to qualify for that tournament so it helped us.''

Turner will take a few days to recoup, then start on figuring out ways to make the 2012 Wichita Open even bigger and better.

"It's kind of taken on a life of its own now,'' he said. "I felt a buzz out there this year, wherever I went. This community wants to see what you can give them that's new, so we better start dreaming again.''