2006: Byron Nelson - Golf’s true gentleman

Legends get your attention because they are legends. Kind legends get more than your attention. They get your affection. Byron Nelson was that way.

He was kind, proud, wholesome, golfy and similar to a jukebox waiting for a quarter. Drop the coin in and records would spin in that fertile mind. He could recall interesting golf moments from a half century earlier as if cue-carded. Tales came accented by smile and twang.

We met about 15 years ago, soon before he turned 80. I feel fortunate to have had a friendly connection. That’s one of the blessings of having this career. I got to know him because of my job as a golf writer for a Dallas newspaper in 1991-95. Acquaintances kept getting renewed because I’ve covered the Dallas-area tournament named after him each of the last 15 years.

Never have I entered into a friendship with anyone else 14 years past retirement age. But then that speaks volumes about Nelson’s magnetism. People one, two, three and even four generations younger have sought him out.

And so this is one of those emotional writes, as Byron Nelson died at 94 on Sept. 26. My first thought was that he lived a long and happy life. My second was that he will be missed by so many people. I don’t know if I’ve ever known anyone liked by more people. You couldn’t count how many compliments this one man received over nine-plus decades.

It follows that the funeral was a love-a-thon. Major champions, major-domos and close friends were everywhere: Ken Venturi, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, Justin Leonard, Mark Brooks and Tim Finchem among them.

The late Payne Stewart was another who was close to Nelson, even though they were separated by 45 years. So it was not surprising that Stewart’s widow, Tracey, showed up at the Nelson front door to console Byron’s widow, Peggy, at about 9 a.m. the day after the death.

Byron Nelson has been known for his golf record – mostly that magical 1945 season during which he won 11 consecutive tournaments, 18 total and had a 68.33 stroke average – and for his tournament. But he often said he wanted to be known as a good Christian man.

You might say he succeeded, for it’s pretty safe to say that no one in the history of golf has touched more lives positively than Byron Nelson. That’s his real legacy.

His record is impressive, sure. The five majors, the 52 PGA Tour victories, the 113 cuts made, all before leaving the full-time touring life at age 34 to pursue his dream of becoming a cattle rancher. But Nelson’s most significant mark on society came because of his association with the tournament since 1968.

The Nelson event annually leads the Tour in charitable contributions. You can’t even imagine how many boys and girls with emotional and behavioral problems have been helped because of the tournament’s proceeds to the Salesmanship Club of Dallas.

The tournament did a couple of other very important things. It kept his body alive and his name in the forefront. The longer he lived, the more lives were touched.

I always felt good when around Byron Nelson. Felt clean. I always came away with a better understanding of the high value of simple pleasures. He’d go to church and bible study and do his woodworking in his shop. He didn’t live a big, fancy life. But he lived a rich one.

He’d get around by cane in the later years and call Peggy, 33 years his junior, Nelson, “greatest wife and nurse.” You might say he was lucky to marry someone like that a year after Louise, his wife of 50 years, died.

My most memorable visit was in early 1992 at the ranch. He sat there in a rocking chair in the family room, a mini-golf museum. He held a cane and fidgeted as usual. He talked almost nonstop and felt pain not only in his new hip but in his heart. His mother had recently died at 98 and her senility of the previous three years was on his mind.

“If I can live to be 94 and be OK healthwise and brainwise,” he said, “that would be fine.”

He called his shot. Ninety-four it was.

Byron would be the first to tell you that far more was made of his unthinkable 11-consecutive streak in recent years than when it happened in 1945. It took on much greater importance as years passed. Five years ago he said the press didn’t catch on to the streak until the ninth victory. What’s more, in 1995, while in Dallas for a 50-year anniversary celebration, his close friend Harold “Jug” McSpaden, runner-up most of the time, told me he hadn’t known back in the day that Nelson was in the midst of such a feat.

Other Nelson memories don’t figure to fade.

I remember him telling me, “I got sick and tired of competing. I never looked back.”

I remember him going through his 11-in-a-row streak in exquisite detail, recalling details better than I could my last round.

I remember him telling me that longtime rival Ben Hogan used to always tell him that he didn’t practice enough.

I remember making arrangements for Nelson and Hogan to be photographed together in 1992 for the first time in decades. Both were born in 1912 and caddied at Glen Garden, but they were as different as short and tall, introverted and extroverted, private and gregarious, blunt and diplomatic.

So I started with Hogan. His secretary said Hogan wanted to do the shoot at his home course, Shady Oaks, in Fort Worth. I informed Byron of this the day his statue was unveiled at the Four Seasons Las Colinas. Byron bristled, saying, “That’s just like Hogan, wanting to do it on his turf.” But he consented.

Later he had second thoughts. He called me that night, said he had been thinking about it and wondered if we couldn’t compromise slightly and take the pictures at Colonial in Fort Worth, known as Hogan’s Alley. And so it was that on Feb. 10, 1992 they showed up at Colonial, both dressed in jackets, ties and hats. Both held persimmon woods. As they walked off, Nelson using a cane, Hogan wrapped his right arm around Nelson’s left to help his longtime rival with balance.

After Hogan died some 5 1/2 years later, Nelson expressed to me disappointment about not being chosen as a pallbearer or being a part of the funeral. He sat near the back of the church and felt left out.

Sam Snead – the third of the great triumvirate born in 1912 and who was one of the pallbearers – told me Hogan and Nelson were friends until “an incident. He had asked Byron about something that he thought happened, and Byron acted as innocent as a young baby. He was mad at Byron for some unknown reason. It was a misunderstanding.”

In separate interviews in ’92, Hogan and Nelson addressed how they felt about not playing regularly anymore. Hogan talked about how dearly he missed hitting balls, how there was never enough daylight for him. Nelson said, “I miss the companionship” of playing with friends.

That was one of the last interviews, if not the final one, Hogan did. Similarly, I did one of the last ones with Nelson, this May. It was then that he told me his driver’s license was renewed until age 98 and that he didn’t drive fast because he didn’t want to get arrested. It was then that he dispensed pearls of wisdom on clean living.

“I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t chase women and I always exercised,” he said. “I was always active and I thought right. I wanted to do things that made people proud of what they were.”

As death neared, he wasn’t worried. Rather, he sounded prepared when he wrote this in the spring: “The place I’m going someday soon will be better than any golf course or winning any championship, because I’m racing for a prize that will last forever.”

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