News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sports Columns

May 20, 2012

Lord Byron Nelson: Golf's true gentleman

TERRE HAUTE — This weekend at the HP Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas, they are commemorating the 100 years since the birth of their tournament’s namesake. “Lord Byron”, as he was known to the world, was the first professional golfer to have a tournament named for him, when the Dallas Open Invitational was renamed the Byron Nelson Classic in 1968, and there was good reason for that. Not only was he a very accomplished golfer, he was a great ambassador for the game because he was such a great gentleman.

John Byron Nelson Jr. was born on February 4th, 1912.  Sam Snead and Ben Hogan were also born in 1912. Byron and Ben grew up near each other and caddied at the same golf club. Byron turned professional in 1932, and won his first major, the Masters Championship, in 1937. He won it again in 1942.  Unable to go to war because it took his blood 13 minutes to congeal instead of two, Byron’s career took off during the war years. He played in 133 tournaments and was in the money list in every one, which at that time meant he made the top 10.

Nelson’s record season in 1945 is still regarded as the best ever by a male golfer. He won 11 tournaments in a row, and 18 tournaments in all. His stroke average during that year was 68.33. He won 54 tournaments in his professional career, including 5 majors: The Masters in 1937 and 42, The U.S. Open in 1939, and the PGA in 1940 and 1945. He retired from full-time golf in 1946,  and retired to his ranch in Texas, where he still taught others, including Tom Watson.

Known for his accuracy and repetitive swing motion, he is often credited with being the “Father of the Modern Golf Swing.” So it’s no wonder that a robotic machine, built to test golf balls and clubs, was modeled after Nelson’s swing, and called “Iron Byron.” George Manning, the engineer commissioned to build the robot, examined high speed photography of top golfers at the time, and concluded that Nelson’s was the most efficient and repeatable swing. It created the maximum amount of distance with a minimum amount of energy.

There were other structures named after him too, such as the Byron Nelson Bridge, which spans Rae’s Creek on the 13th hole at Augusta National. This picturesque stone arched bridge was dedicated to him in 1958. Also, near his Texas ranch, Byron Nelson High School which opened for the 2009-10 school year in Trophy Club, Texas.

One story — as reported by Don Wade in “And Then Jack Said to Arnie ... “ — that illustrates what a gentleman Mr. Nelson was, was told by Ken Venturi, who was a protégé’ of his. The two of them traveled around California playing in exhibitions. Whenever they arrived at a new course, Byron would find out what the course record was and who held it. If it was held by the local pro or amateur, he wouldn’t try to break it. He knew that record meant more to them than it would to him. 

While Lord Byron was alive, he would sit in a chair near the 18th green at his tournament in Dallas, wearing his well-worn straw hat, and greeting the players as they made their way to the scoring tent. That had to have been a thrill and an honor for those players. He considered hosting the Byron Nelson Classic his greatest achievement in golf. He said, “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in golf. Better than winning the Masters or the U.S. Open or 11 in a row, because it helps people.”

Quote of the Day: “We can debate over which man was the greatest golfer, but we can never debate which golfer was the greatest man.”  - The Minister at Byron Nelson’s memorial service in 2006.

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