By Tom Ward
This week is the first leg of the PGA Tour’s annual two week swing through the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. The HP Byron Nelson Championship kicks off the festivities on Thursday, and the following week the players will make the short drive over to Ft. Worth for the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. This week’s tournament’s namesake, the legendary Byron Nelson, was the first golfer to ever have a golf tournament named after him, beginning a great tradition here locally in 1968. In my opinion, you couldn’t have picked a better man to bestow that honor upon.
Sadly, the golf world lost Mr. Nelson in 2006, however his legend will be one of the few in the game that will live on forever. He set a record back in 1945 that will never be broken by winning 11 tournaments in a row. That same year he went on to win an astounding 18 tournaments! He officially retired at the age of 34 to become a rancher and then later a television golf commentator. In 1974, Nelson received the Bob Jones Award, which is the highest award given by the U.S. Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in the game. That same year he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. In 1997, Byron became the second recipient of the PGA Tour Life Time Achievement award. In 2006, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As a teenager growing up in Ohio, when I first took up playing the game of golf, I had read numerous books about all the great players of each era. However, I was particularly fascinated with the exploits of Byron Nelson & Ben Hogan, who ironically both hail from this area. I studied photos of Nelson’s golf swing in a book where you could flip the pages rapidly in succession making the picture come alive like a little video clip because we didn’t have videos back then. I was impressed with the beautiful fluidity and ease that he swung the golf club shot after shot always looking in control. Many golfing experts consider him the “Father of the modern golf swing” which I whole heartily agree. In the early 1930’s, the technology was changing in golf as hickory shafts were being replaced by steel ones. Nelson was among one of the first players to convert and developed a greater leg drive leading his downswing. This move became the forerunner of the modern golf swing as we know it today. His golf swing was so simplistic, efficient and compact that it was the model used for the famous golf testing device called the ‘Iron Byron’ in his honor because of Nelson’s consistence repeatability in his golf swing. This robotic type machine has been used by the USGA and golf manufacturers to compare and test golf clubs and balls to make sure they conform to set industry standards.
Over the years I had the opportunity to meet Byron briefly at different golf tournaments that I participated in here in the DFW area. He was actively involved in lending his name to help numerous worthwhile charities that were close to his heart. Then a few years back I was fortunate to be invited to his home in Roanoke along with my friend, nationally syndicated cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, who draws the strip ‘Nancy’. A few months earlier that year Guy had drawn a week-long comic strip tribute to Byron Nelson which he forwarded to the Las Colinas Golf Club. At that time, Guy was in town to promote his new book and I got a call from Peggy Nelson inviting us to their home. Guy and I excitedly drove to the Nelson home and spent nearly two hours there with Byron and his wife Peggy. It was surreal to be sitting there in the great man’s living room which, by the way, looked like a Hall of Fame shrine to all the great accomplishments he achieved in his golf career. In vivid detail Mr. Nelson regaled both of us with wonderful stories about his golfing exploits from decades long ago. His memory was quite sharp remembering even the slightest incident of a particular golf tournament. I’m a golf history nut so as you can imagine I was eating all this up. When it came time to leave we took a few photos with him, and Byron was so gracious that he gave us both a signed photograph which I cherish to this day. Later, I received a signed book from him called “Byron Nelson: The Little Black Book” chronicling his magnificent career.
In the book he wrote, ”I don’t know why I started keeping my little black notebook in 1935, except that it must have had something to do with my love of numbers and statistics.”
I came away from that experience having even greater respect than I already had for the man because of his kind nature. It was obvious from the moment you met him you knew that this was a special man. It’s a rare individual, especially these days, that can have such a profound impact on the people he meets. Even if you only spent a few moments with him. It’s the true measure of a person like Byron that he was known more as a fine, decent gentleman than the outstanding golfer he was. His legacy will live on forever. Especially in this part of the country where he is remembered as a person who helped others from all walks of life, and that’s something we should all aspire to be. He was the shining example of how a professional athlete should handle himself on and off the playing field. I think I echo the sentiments of anyone who was lucky enough to spend time in the presence of this special man. Being around him made you want to be a better person. As we both headed out the door that afternoon, Guy and myself walked away with many rich and vibrant stories from a true legend of the game.
I think golfer Tom Watson said it best in the book “Byron Nelson: The Little Black Book.” Watson said, ”I credit Mr. Nelson with what I call his “most enduring advice”-“ It’s not how you play, it’s how conduct yourself and how you treat people that counts.”
Every year when the Byron Nelson rolls around, I flash back to that wonderful day I had a chance to hang out with one of my heroes. For all you fans heading out to the TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas in Irving, enjoy the HP Byron Nelson Championship this week!
Tom Ward can be reached at www.teetimewithtom.com