Byron Nelson Championship
ROANOKE, Texas -- Byron Nelson, golf’s greatest living legend, a first-hand witness to Walter Hagen’s 1-up victory in the 1927 PGA Championship and Tiger Woods’ two-shot win at the 2001 Masters, turned 90 Monday with a quiet celebration but no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
While Nelson will always be remembered for his seemingly untouchable records, 11 straight PGA Tour wins in 1945 and 18 total in that year, he says he never really through about hosting his namesake PGA Tour event for 35 years or beginning his ninth decade of a full golfing life.
“Not many golfers live as long as I have,” Nelson said. “I have a young wife, Peggy, (his first wife Louise died of a stroke in 1985) and I don’t smoke or drink or run around.
“You never really thought about those things (age), how long it (the Verizon Byron Nelson Classic) would go on or how much money they would raise. I was shocked they wanted to use my name.”
Last year, his tournament raised nearly $6.3 million dollars for charity, another PGA Tour record and nearly 20 percent of all the money raised by tournaments on the Tour.
But anyone who has known Nelson will tell you the memories of golf’s most consistent player and more importantly its greatest gentleman are priceless.
A full week of public ceremonies for his milestone birthday had to be postponed when Nelson underwent minor back surgery late last month. But in typical active Nelson fashion, he returned from the hospital on Saturday, January 26 to his ranch between Dallas and Fort Worth and was in his usual place in church on Sunday the 27th.
He recently discussed his unmatched career at a private lunch at the lavish Four Seasons Resort in Irving, site of his annual PGA Tour event each May. Fittingly for a man of his active lifestyle, Nelson drove himself to the lunch in his new SUV, a similar car to one he put 15,000 miles on at age 89.
While his last full-time playing season was in 1946, Nelson has remained in the golfing spotlight, thanks to an active interest in the game from his time as an ABC-TV commentator in the 1970s and ‘80s, having the only PGA Tour event named for him (Verizon Byron Nelson Classic), a multi-million dollar clothing line, a golf school he still speaks at, and a travel schedule which would make men decades younger wince.
“The reason the (current) pros still recognize me is that I still get around to several tournaments each year and they tell me I’m the only senior player who still gets out to the events,” Nelson said.
“I am mentioned when they talk about the best golfers of all time, that’s good enough for me. I doubt there’s ever been a golfer in history who’s had more standing ovations than I have,” Nelson added.
He won 54 PGA Tour events, fifth all-time, and five major championships including the 1937 Masters, the 1939 U.S. Open plus the 1940 and ’45 PGA Championship.
Nelson’s records of 11 straight and 18 in the same season are considered by many as golf’s most unbreakable records, but Nelson said his mark of 113 tournaments in the money will last the longest of all.
“When I played, you had to finish in the top 20-30 to make any money at all. Just making the cut wouldn’t get you anything like it will today,” he said.
Nelson said he still watches almost every tournament on TV if he is not there in person. He produces dozens of hand-written notes to pen pals like Tiger Woods, who he has known since age 14, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and Loren Roberts along with making his annual visit to the Players’ Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida each March, working the driving range while leaning on his cane to pick up any last-minute commitments for his own PGA Tour event.
Whenever Nelson is on the range at the Players’ Championship in March or his own event in May, players quickly gather around for greetings, stories or swing tips on their game.
When Nelson met Sergio Garcia for the first time at the scoring tent behind the 18th green of his event in 1999, Garcia knelt down so as not to tower over the seated man.
Recently, Nelson invited teen sensation Ty Tyron to the 2002 Nelson tournament, who regretfully had to decline the invitation because it conflicted with his Junior-Senior High School prom.
Asked for the secret of his long life when so many of his contemporaries are either no longer around or rarely in the public spotlight, Nelson credited his wife Peggy, his active lifestyle and his strong faith in God.
“In 2000 when the United States Golf Association had all the former champions back at Pebble Beach for the 100th anniversary of the tournament, there were 31 former champions there (Nelson won in 1939), but I was the only one from 1954 back to the beginning of the event. I was the only one still alive.”
Another factor in his longevity was 35-year involvement with the PGA event, which still carries his name.
He agreed to serve as the namesake with the sponsoring Salesmanship Club with a simple handshake and Nelson has been a key part of player recruiting, sponsor exemptions and sponsor negotiations ever since.
“As a result, my name is more active than any 89-year-old golfer in the country,” he said recently. “It has meant everything to me.”
Salesmanship Club Tournament Chairman Frank Swingle said the active involvement of Nelson, even in his 90th year, means everything to the PGA Tour event.
“His energetic spirit challenges us to keep up with him all year long, but especially during tournament time. He may be going on 90, but you would never know it from being around him.”
The players’ respect for Nelson was shown in the field for the 2001 tournament as the Nelson featured commitments from 27 of the top 30 money winners on the PGA money list.
Born on a rural Texas farm on Feb, 4 1912, John Byron Nelson moved to Fort Worth at an early age and has lived in North Texas most of his life. The Fairway Ranch in Roanoke, just outside of Fort Worth, is what Nelson purchased with the winnings from his unmatched ‘45 season and where he has lived ever since he retired from full-time competition.
He began his association with golf by caddying at nearby Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. Because caddies were not often allowed to play at Glen Garden, he would often practice in the dark, placing his white handkerchief over the hole so he could find it in the darkness.
While at Glen Garden, he met fellow caddie and local resident Ben Hogan, who also became a legendary golfing figure and was Nelson’s professional rival for more than two decades. The two future stars first competed in the Glen Garden Caddie Tournament where Nelson bested Hogan by a single stroke after a nine-hole playoff in the first of many such matches.
Nelson said his only golf regret came in not winning the British Open, the only major championship he needed to complete his career grand slam. When Nelson was playing in the 1930s and 40s, World War II interrupted many of the tournaments and airplane travel was not a realistic option to Europe, meaning the only way for players to get to the British Open was to spend up to six weeks on a boat traveling to and from the tournament.
“I didn’t like boats, so I only played there twice, once after I retired because we were on a trip to France, and the best I ever finished was tied for fifth,” Nelson said.
But he has few other regrets in his full life, where his first professional golf tournament was the ’27 PGA Championship where he handed Hagen his hat to help him (Hagen) block out the sun and saw him rally over Joe Turnesa to win at Dallas’ Cedar Crest golf course.
A starter along with Sam Snead at the Masters every April, Nelson said he likes nothing better than to sit and watch today’s players perform, talking with them and his older friends about the game he loves and has been so active in.
“It doesn’t matter where it is, I just like to go,” Nelson said in explaining his active lifestyle. “I go and enjoy it all. I may have to go less as I get older, but I’ll still go.”
He sat on the first tee at Southern Hills last June for the opening round of the U.S. Open and introduced Ben Crenshaw at the 2002 Nelson kickoff luncheon, a week before his back surgery in January.
Age 90 or not, Lord Byron Nelson has no plans of golf retirement anytime in the future.