Mr. Nelson, who died Tuesday at age 94, many times said softly ' but emphatically ' that his stellar playing career was not as important to him as earning a reputation for friendliness, fair dealing, and a commitment to the other principles of decency found in his lifelong Christian faith.
Greg Hopkins knew. He was already a golf equipment industry veteran when he came to Cleveland Golf in 1997; he has now risen to the chief executives chair. By the time Hopkins came to Cleveland, Mr. Nelson had already been on the endorsement staff for eight years. For Hopkins, a skilled player and student of the game, Mr. Nelson had been in his consciousness for much longer.
My stomach just dropped, Hopkins said of his reaction when he heard the news of Mr. Nelsons death. I know hes 94but sometimeswell, he was such a rock that you just dont expect it. You think hes always going to be there.
Mr. Nelson was a dream endorser, Hopkins said. Even though he retired from active tournament play in 1946, Mr. Nelson insisted on earning his keep. This work mainly took the form of casting a practiced eye over new club designs.
When we made the transition from the VAS inset hosel clubs, we shipped him some of the prototypes of the original TA3 irons, Hopkins recalled. The comments he made went into the next generation, the TA3 Form Forged. And that shaping is still in the TA1s and CG1s and our performance cavity backs. He would call me back with specific advice, and whenever I would see him, he would tell me more.
But even more important, Hopkins said, was the aura effect of Mr. Nelsons quiet but compelling moral authority.
Cleveland Golf has always tried very hard to be a company of integrity, Hopkins said in a voice that was beginning to struggle its way around the lump in his throat. For us, Mr. Nelson was a fatherly figure. We tried to mirror his ethic and make him proud of the way we did business. I mean, we literally had meetings just on the subject of how Byron would handle things.
Although though the news of his passing is heavy to bear, Hopkins prefers to remember Mr. Nelson with one of his favorite stories, which cant fail to bring a smile.
I asked him once whether he thought he might be able to play even better today than he did in 1945 [when he won 18 events, including 11 in a row], what with the modern equipment and all. And he simply said, No, without a hint of bragging or ego. I asked him why, and he said, again without overstating it, Well, the middle of the club now is the same as the middle of the club in 1945. And in 1945, I didnt miss the middle of the club.
It felt good to hear the chuckle over the phone when Hopkins tells that story.
I never thought Heaven could be a better place, Hopkins said. But starting this week, it is.
Email your thoughts to Adam Barr