Byron Nelson, golf legend and gentleman rancher, leaned on a cane in each hand as he walked into the room. Wearing his trademark fedora, he sat down for a one-on-one interview and strapped on a portable oxygen unit he has used for about three years, up to 20 hours per day. He says his memory isn’t what it was a couple of years ago, particularly recalling names. He gets around mainly by motorized scooter. He doesn’t spend as many daily hours as in past years at the PGA Tour event named after him. And for the first time since 1935 he didn’t attend the Masters.
Apparently this is what happens when you are 94 years young. You slow down a bit.
The key word in that sentence would be bit. When he opens his mouth, you forget about the age, for Byron Nelson is still a jukebox waiting for a quarter. Drop it in and listen to him talk and talk, lucid beyond his years. The tone is soothing and the words indicate an active lifestyle.
“I don’t get around well and have to be on oxygen a lot, but other than that I’m fine,” Nelson said. “My health is very good, I sleep well and my blood pressure and heart are good as long as I use this (oxygen).”
Don’t know about you, but I have a simple goal for age 94: Breathe.
Byron Nelson? He goes to church twice weekly. He spends a couple of hours in his woodwork shop daily. He sees his chiropractor three mornings per week. He runs errands. He works on the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, including hours of valuable schmoozing during tournament week. And he still talks vividly about that magical 1945 as if it were yesterday.
“It’s amazing how the man can reflect back 30 years and tell you every golf shot he hit and how much he spent on traveling,” Tour veteran Kenny Perry said.
Thirty? Try 70. I mean, the man retired from full-time competition six decades ago because he wanted to buy a ranch.
You want amazing, here it is: His daily existence also includes driving a car around town. Yes, you can still see Nelson zipping from that Roanoke ranch down the highway to places like Grand Prairie and Keller.
Foolishly underestimating golf’s greatest living legend, I asked if he’s a good driver. This was a reference to a motor vehicle, not to those steel-shafted wooden clubs he used to win 18 tournaments – including 11 in a row – 61 years ago.
“Well,” he said, “three years ago when I was 91, they renewed my license for seven years.”
When you don’t have to take a driver’s test again until you’re 98, that is good news.
“I see well, so why shouldn’t I drive?” he said, taking his glasses off and reading fine print on a water bottle to prove the point. “I don’t drive like a mad man. I drive close to the speed limit.”
There’s a reason for that. The most clean-cut person I’ve ever met says he’s fearful of John Law. That would be police. Think jail.
“I do not want to get arrested at my age,” Nelson said. “So when it’s 35 I don’t go over 40. I don’t go over 65 or so. I don’t break 80. You could get arrested doing that.”
I might have a healthy imagination, but one image I can’t conjure up is one of Byron Nelson in handcuffs.
He says back in the day, though, he had a bad temper. In this case, back in the day means when he was 3. Like 1915. Anyway, he says no parents ever raised a child better than his raised him. That upbringing included discipline primarily from his mother.
“She found out when I was born I had too much temper,” Nelson said.
So how exactly did he get rid of his hothead gene?
“My mother beat it out of me,” he said. “Every time I sassed her, every time I acted ugly or did something I shouldn’t be doing . . . ”
You might say all that spanking paid off. He would go on not only to win major golf tournaments but to lead the world in clean living. That became clear again when he was asked to dispense pearls of wisdom on how to live.
“The first thing is I always tell young people is that I never dissipated,” Nelson said. “I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t chase women and
I always exercised. I was always active and I thought right. I wanted to do things that made people proud of what they were.”
Nelson says his “perfect day” would start with breakfast with his second wife, Peggy, 33 years his junior. She is a kind soul who lovingly looks after this human treasure so well that he says, “My doctors say I would not be alive today without her. I have no stress at all. I’ve been married to her 19 years and there’s never been any stress level once.”
No stress in 19 years of marriage? And you thought he was one of a kind as a golfer-humanitarian? Who needs Dr. Phil for advice? Go see Lord Byron when the home life hits a bump.
It’s no secret pros play the Nelson tournament largely because of Nelson the man. Tom Lehman says he feels badly when he skips the event “because I feel like it’s hurting Byron’s feelings.” Harrison Frazar said, “It’ll be heartbreaking to a lot of people when he can no longer come out here.”
Nelson has lent his name to the tournament since 1968. It has been the perfect marriage. He has helped the event raise $88 million for the Salesmanship Club’s youth and family centers. He has helped recruit the best golfers to play. In return, he says his involvement has kept his body and name alive.
As a result of his golf and giving, Nelson has been nominated for a Congressional Gold Medal, which has been awarded to 137 civilians since 1858 including George Washington, Thomas Edison, Mother Teresa and only four athletes. Nelson’s bid, rightly so, passed the House without a negative vote and warrants no-brainer approval from the Senate.
The other sportsmen – Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente – were honored posthumously. It would be nice to celebrate Nelson while he’s still driving around town amazing people.
“Every year I show up and people are surprised,” he said of his tournament. “AndI am, too.”
Not that he’s worried about passing. He figures the best looms.
“The place I’m going someday soon will be better than any golf course or winning any championship,” Byron Nelson wrote this spring, “because I’m racing for a prize that will last forever.”