When Byron Nelson, age 93, asks if you have a minute, you find one.
The most self-effacing great man in golf, perhaps in all sports, is sitting on a high stool in the middle of a living-room-like reception area at the Byron Nelson Golf School. The school sits between the practice green and the range here at the TPC Four Seasons in this bustling town halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Cleveland Golf, with whom Mr. Nelson has had a decades-long relationship, is throwing a mid-afternoon Champagne toast to honor the 60th anniversary of the great mans 1945 season: 11 straight wins, 18 total, seven second-places.
More wins than all you guys combined, said Greg Hopkins, Clevelands chief executive, with a wry smile, getting the needle into the active Cleveland tour pros who have come to shake hands with history.
They take Hopkins ribbing as he meant it, in a good-natured way. But skilled as they are, not one of them hasnt wished for some of Nelsons perfect-swing magic, even a little of it. For now, though, the pros, reporters and Cleveland staff that have come for handshakes and photographs were content to listen to a few stories.
Bfore I was with Cleveland, I was up in the Spalding plant, up in Chicopee, said the old man, his voice as clear and confident as it has always been. Saw a putter up there. Well, I fell in love with that putter. Every famous picture you see of me, its that putter I was holding.
Here he inserted the perfect pause. The man has told a lot of stories. Then, with a look toward Hopkins:
You woulda gone broke on putters.
Champagne spilled from glasses that shook with the holders laughter.
From that illustrious birth class of 1912, only Nelson remains. Snead is gone, as is Ben Hogan, Nelsons pal from the caddie yard at old Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. Born a decade after Bobby Jones, the three rivals never hesitated about accepting the next generation of golfs highest expectations. It was Nelson who won the 1939 U.S. Open in a playoff after Snead tripled the last hole in regulation. And Byron won his second Masters in 1942 with Hogan chasing.
But there are burdens involved in survival, as an attendee at the Champagne session quietly observed.
Problem with being 93, he said, is that so many of your friends are gone.
Hard to argue with. But likely Mr. Nelson, a lifelong glass-half-full fellow, wouldnt see it as a burden.
Im here, I can walk, I can talk, he said as he wrapped up his chat. I have the best wife in the world, he said, nodding and smiling to Peggy, whom he married 18 years ago.
Ive only ever bought one place to live, he said, referring to the ranch in Roanoke, Texas, about an hour away, when he retired from competitive golf. Throughout his career, the dream of the ranch was his shining goal, impelling him to play better and endure the stomach-churning pressure of tournament golf.
Been there 59 years this August, he said proudly.
And he has been here, at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, every year as long as he feels able, sitting in a chair by the 18th, shaking the hands of player after player who offer warm smiles and enduring respect. Nelsons name and peerless reputation alone draw a stellar field to this event, and that helps its charitable partner, the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, to be the leading PGA Tour charity every year.
The Nelson Effect spreads. Cleveland CEO Hopkins, raising his glass, crystallized it:
When I leave you, he said to Mr. Nelson, I leave wanting to a better man.
Everyone there agreed.
Mr. Nelson no longer swings a golf club, at least not often. So how does he spend his days?
I still love woodworking, he says, although some friends say I shouldnt use power tools. But I built about eight clocks recently for people. Same kind I made for Peggy, before we were married. Little battery clock in that wood case. She still has it on her bedside table. Still keeps perfect time.
Yes indeed. Perfect time.
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