Byron Nelson – A Champion and Gentleman

This week marks the first playing of the annual EDS Byron Nelson Championship, without its founder and namesake – Lord Byron Nelson. Nelson, who died last September, was a fixture (along with wife Peggy) around the 18th green, and would graciously spend time with players upon completion of their rounds. His enormous presence will certainly be missed this week.

Byron Nelson was born in Texas in 1912, within 6 months of two other all-time greats – Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. In fact, as a child, he caddied along side Hogan at a Texas golf club. The two champions, never great friends, were rivals until Nelson retired early at the age of 34 in 1946. Nelson first became entranced with the game after watching Walter Hagen play an exhibition in his hometown. Of course it didn’t hurt when Hagen singled Nelson out in the gallery and gave him his hat. After receiving the unexpected gift, Nelson ran home and announced to his mother – he was going to be a professional golfer, just like Walter Hagen! And what a professional he became.

Although most famous for his record setting year of 1945, when he won 18 tournaments and 11 in a row – Nelson’s impact on the modern game is tremendous. For one, he was the first golfer of any standing to embrace the steel shaft. He realized, in order to reach his true potential, he would have to build his swing around the new modern equipment and not the hickory shafts of his youth. What developed was a beautifully balanced, powerful and efficient motion, which became the envy of all around him. He was the first professional to limit hand action and believed true power and accuracy came from the proper use of the legs throughout the swing. At its best, his swing was so simple and repeatable – he was impossible to beat. He just hit the ball too straight.

A couple of great stories best tell the legend that was Nelson’s ball striking. In one round, during that magical 1945 run, Nelson hit 11 flagsticks! That’s right, 11 flagsticks! Amazing! In another story, his caddy often told of another day when Nelson hit his tee ball in his previous round’s divot, 6 times. Talk about consistency.

Nelson, even after retirement, was also known for helping younger pros with their golf games. Two of his most famous pupils were Ken Venturi and Tom Watson, who he helped without ever accepting a fee.

I suppose there is always a fascination with athletes who retire at the top of their game -and Byron Nelson was no different. He called it quits during the absolute prime of his golfing career – age 34. He often spoke after reaching his main goal – owning a ranch – having nothing left to play for. Once he made enough money to purchase his ranch – he retired and never played tournament golf again.

In later years, Nelson spent time doing television, charity work, club design and other golf related projects. However, he felt his greatest legacy was the Byron Nelson Championship – the first tournament ever named for a professional golfer. He was proud of the event and especially proud of the contribution it made to Dallas based charities and families.

The game of golf will miss Byron Nelson – one of its all-time best players – but more importantly, its finest ambassador. Recently, two awards were created in his honor to help celebrate this wonderful gentleman.

Read more about the Byron Nelson Championship

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