Mr. Byron Nelson
From Hardworking Kid to Living Legend
(Written and submitted by Peggy Nelson)
Winner of five majors and more than 50 tournaments, including a remarkable 11 in a row and 18 in one year, Byron Nelson is numbered among the top golfers of all time. Even though he had a relatively short time on the pro tour barely 12 years Byron had goals in mind and dreams to realize. But his dedication, perseverance and hard work combined with his strong Christian faith and kindness to all were evident long before he ever won his first tournament.
Born February 4, 1912 near Waxahachie Texas, Byron spent his early years living on small cotton farms in several small Texas towns. When his family moved to Fort Worth in 1922, this industrious youngster sold his family's garden produce, plus eggs, milk, and his mother's prized hand-churned butter to neighbors, corner grocers, and eventually the local country club. He loved being busy, whether it was loading his little red wagon with the ever-present Texas rocks and hauling them around his family's small farm or endlessly practicing chipping with the one golf club he owned. Even his grandmother was heard to say when he was just seven years old, "That youngster's going to amount to something!"
So he did. Learning how to caddie at Glen Garden Country Club when he was twelve, Byron loved the game of golf from the first time he got to swing a club. While he did all right in school during an age when schooling wasn't nearly so important as it is today, Byron grew up in a neighborhood where very few folks had much in the way of material goods. Born in 1912, he reached his teenage years just before the Depression, and when the full force of that economic collapse hit, Byron found himself pulled much more strongly toward the game he loved, even though there seemed no future to it then.
Soon, Byron was winning one amateur tournament after another, and had graduated to mowing the greens at the club as well as learning how to clean, repair, and polish woods, irons, and putters. By the time he was twenty, the young man with the strong jaw and keen eyesight had his first job as a club professional at Texarkana. In those days, unfortunately, golf pros didn't have the best reputation, but his parents had instilled in Byron all they knew of the Bible and had enough confidence in his Christian foundation that they sent him off with that great phrase fro Ecclesiastes: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
In fact, Texarkana was where Byron had actually turned pro a few months before. On November 22, 1932, he rode a bus from Fort Worth to play in a small tournament the total prize money $500. Getting on the pro tour was little simpler then, and on the first tee, he paid his $5 entry fee and announced that he was playing for the money. He finished third and won $75, which was more money that he'd held in his hand at one time in his whole life. And shortly thereafter, he was hired as the club professional.
On-the-job training as a club pro gave Byron time to learn how to teach the golf swing, as well as time to practice his own game. Now it was the height of the Depression and there wasn't much golf being played at Texarkana or anywhere else, but Byron had already begun to dream of bigger things. He'd made up his mind that someday he wanted to buy a ranch, even though he knew there wasn't much money in pro golf. That meant he had to play his very best every chance he got, save every penny he could and in the process, he just might reach a few goals like having the lowest scoring average, winning the most tournaments in a year, and having his name in the record books for a while.
He stayed at Texarkana two years, before being hired as the assistant pro at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey. He was already getting to be known for his golf and his character through some fine play in tournaments on the west coast and a few other places, though he wasn't winning enough of the little money there was to play full time. However, in addition to his rapidly improving golf game, he brought to New Jersey his new bride, Louise Shofner Nelson, whom he'd met at church in Texarkana and to whom he was joyfully wedded for 50 years.
During Byron's tenure at Ridgewood, he continued to hone his swing and won his first big tournament, the Metropolitan Open, considered almost a major at the time. In between his duties at the club, he won a few more local events, and then came the big one, the Masters of 1937.
It was his third time to play in the year's first major, and though he shot a record-setting 66 in the first round, by the middle of the fourth, Byron was four shots behind Ralph Guldahl who was in the group ahead. But with two birdies and a little bad luck for Guldahl, Byron was almost even as he stood in the middle of the 13th fairway. Watching Ralph go into Rae's Creek and make a 6, Byron had a difficult decision to make whether to go for the green and possibly make and eagle to pass everyone, or lay up and hope for a birdie with five tough holes to go.
The Lord hates a coward, Byron said to his caddie, took out his three wood and sailed the ball up and over the creek, nearly on the green. Proceeding to chip in for an eagle 3, Byron played the remaining holes in even par and won by two shots. As he said later, That taught me my game could stand up under pressure, and I could make good decisions in difficult circumstances.
Several good decisions followed. Byron was almost immediately hired as head professional at Reading Country Club in Pennsylvania where he was to stay for three years and play some of his best golf, winning the Western Open, the North and South Open, and the U.S. Open in 1939 (by virtue of an unusual and extremely tough double 18-hole playoff at Philadelphia Country Club) and the PGA Championship at Hershey in 1940. Reading was a pretty active club and Byron was in demand for lessons, sometimes beginning at 5:30 a.m. He taught everyone from complete beginners to whole families, including one father and son who went on to win the state championship together numerous times.
He also used every opportunity to keep winning money for his dream, buying that cattle ranch. By now, Byron had won eleven tournaments, including two majors and was admired both on and off the course for his determination and humility and his genuine admiration for the spirited play of his opponents. Among them were the great of his day and before: Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Jimmy Demaret.
Another change came in his regular job, as he was hired for the prestigious Inverness Country Club in Toledo, Ohio. Finding himself with over 350 active members plus plus an assistant pro, Byron gave even more lessons than he had at Reading and developed several successful ways to both get to know the members and increase sales of clubs and shoes. He set up times to play with groups on a revolving basis, and when he noticed that a member was having trouble with his swing or was using clubs that weren't the right length for the person's height, he'd offer swing tips or suggest trying a new set of irons or woods or a putter.
In 1941 and 1942, Byron not only continued to play golf, but used his growing reputation in the war effort as well. Declared unfit for combat due to a blood coagulation time that was too slow to suit the army, Byron instead gave his services in exhibitions and clinics across the country to aid in fund-raising for the Red Cross, USO, and war bonds. He even did a stint with Hollywood, crisscrossing the land in the company of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. The USGA later determined that Byron had made 110 appearances during that time and had done far more for the war effort than if he'd actually been in uniform.
While there weren't as many tournaments in '42 as there had been (and virtually none in '43), Byron managed to garner another major, winning the Masters for the second time in a tough 18-hole playoff with his childhood rival from Glen Garden, Ben Hogan. Continuing to both work at Inverness and do exhibitions and clinics for the war effort, he also found time to help get a couple of golf industries started Foot-Joy golf shoes and Haas-Jordan golf umbrellas.
By 1944, the golf tour had revived somewhat, and Nelson added 10 more victories to his resume, even though there were no majors played that year. Then in '45, with the end of the war, golf bloomed and Byron left Inverness in order to play the tour full time and get even closer to his ultimate goal.
As part of his strategy, he went over all his notes from the year before and found that too many times he'd made a careless chip or putt which had eventually cost him a tournament. He vowed that he was going to make every effort to not do either one of those things the next year, and it surely paid off. His scoring average in 1945 was 68.33, still the record for 30 tournaments played in one year, and even more remarkable, his average score for the final round was 67.45, proving he knew how to close the deal. The final tally: Byron won eighteen official events, including an astonishing eleven in a row, and was second seven times. Among those victories was another PGA Championship, one in which he played nearly two hundred holes at match play before emerging as the winner.
By 1946, Byron and Louise were starting to hunt for that dream ranch, and found what they wanted just outside the small town of Roanoke, midway between Denton and Fort Worth and not too far from Dallas. He continued playing the tour and collected eight more victories before deciding he'd had enough. Paying for the ranch with nearly all of his life savings over $52,000, Byron settled in with Louise on August 26, 1946, and lived there for the next sixty years. The ranch started with 530 acres and eventually grew to just over 750.
Even though he'd left the professional tour, Byron stayed involved in golf while learning how to raise cattle and do some hay farming. He did exhibitions for a number of years, and played in a few majors as well. He even won a few more tournaments, including the Crosby in 1951 and the Crosby Pro-Am, plus the French Open in 1955.
Always interested in the biennial Ryder Cup, Byron was selected by the players to be their captain in 1965. Having been part of several victorious teams already, he used his experience and motivational ability to bring the cup back to America once again, and considered this to be the crowning touch to his competitive golf career. But he wasn't quite done with golf. In the late fifties and throughout the sixties, Byron co-authored newspaper columns on golf and eventually did television commentating for over 12 years.
However, in 1967, Byron was called upon for something much bigger than anything he'd done in golf so far. Asked to lend his name to a pro tournament held in the Dallas area that would benefit troubled children, Byron agreed and committed himself to helping make the Byron Nelson Golf Classic as successful as it could possible be. For the next 38 years, he was the official host of the tournament and thoroughly enjoyed it. He said later, It's the best thing that's ever happened to me in golf, better than winning the Masters or the U.S. Open or eleven in a row. Because it helps people.
The leading fund raiser on the PGA tour, the tournament that still bears his name has raised over $100 million, far outdistancing any other professional golf event. More importantly, it has helped thousands of children and their families work through emotional and educational challenges to lead positive, productive lives.
Aside from the tournament bearing his name, Byron filled his time at his beloved ranch, raising cattle and chickens. He'd also began a hobby he enjoyed the rest of his life, woodworking. Over the next 40 years, he produced end tables, recipe boxes, file cabinets, bookcases, hope chests, and dozens of clocks to give to friends and family.
In 1985, Byron's beloved Louise passed away after a long illness. Devastated by her loss and feeling he had little reason to go on living, he began to lose weight and it was feared he wouldn't live long himself. But a fateful phone call from an old friend in Dayton, Ohio, resulted in Byron's becoming reacquainted with a woman he'd met briefly in June of 1981, and whom he would eventually marry. As it turned out, Byron and Peggy were blessed with nearly twenty years together before he died at home on his beloved ranch, September 26, 2006. He was 94 years old.
This was Byron Nelson. The youngster who sold his family's garden produce. The kid who loved practicing chipping with his only golf club. The young man who decided to turn pro on a bus between Fort Worth and Texarkana. The club pro who dreamed of setting records in golf and then having a cattle ranch of his own. The gentle champion who had such a strong reputation for goodness and decency and humility and respect for others, that city leaders chose to name a tournament for him. The hero who invested all his talents in making that event a complete success. That is the man whose name now graces the campus of Byron Nelson High School.
Come visit us in person. You'll see how we're putting into practice the values that Byron both believed in and lived out in every aspect of his life. As former sports editor of the Dallas Daily News, Felix McKnight once said, I've known all of the greats in sports. Byron's the only one who's never disappointed me.