Legacy of a Gentle Man


Forgive me. My favorite memories in this game often involve my father in some way. My recollections of and stories about Byron Nelson are no exception. If you were a golfer, Byron Nelson cared about you. Male or female, amateur or professional, if you embraced the game, he embraced you. If you were a Texan, that embrace was a little warmer.
My father was 14 when he lost his dad. Dave Marr, Sr. was a golf professional in Texas and his friends did their best to look after the boy. Gradually Dave, Jr. was introduced to more people in the Texas golf community, and at some point that included Byron. Whether he sensed Dads need, or just liked the young Texas scrapper, Bryon shared his kindness with the new pro with encouraging words and a protective eye. Later he would become an important figure in the two crowning moments of my dads playing career.
Twenty years removed from that glorious 1945 season, Byron was a television commentator for ABC Sports covering the PGA Championship. Now in his 50s, the gentleman called the gentlemans game like it should be: politely, honestly, and with dignity and grace. Sunday August 15th , with his pregnant wife at home about to give birth and Nicklaus and Casper charging hard, Dave Marr, Jr. was trying to win the PGA Championship. Only one other son of a PGA Professional had won the Championship, his cousin Jack Burke, Jr.
The 18th hole at Laurel Valley had an elevated green and players couldnt see how close their approach shots would finish. On Sunday, Dad drove into a fairway bunker and had to lay up short of a lake protecting that elevated green. With a 9-iron in hand all he needed to do was to hit the green, two-putt and sign the back of the winners check; but as with all of us, worst case scenarios swirled in the dark places that feed on a players uncertainty. He hit the shot exactly how he wanted and listened to the gallerys reaction. He suspected that hed be able to two-putt, but it wasnt until he looked up at the broadcast tower to find Byron, the kindly Texas Gentleman Golfer hanging out of the tower with a wide smile and his hands 3 feet apart, that Dad realized he had knocked it stiff and won his fathers championship.
That autumn, the man who had gleefully served as forecaddie for that final approach shot now assumed the duties of captain for the 1965 United States Ryder Cup Team. Byrons team was strong and my father was probably the least experienced player on the squad. Sensing Dads nerves, Byron paired him with Arnold Palmer for the second match out, but the pressure was overwhelming. After losing, 6 and 5, Dad felt that he had let Arnold, Byron, the team, and his country down. He wasnt able to eat at lunch, listening to the voices murmuring from those dark places. Byron came to Dads table and asked Arnold who he would like to play with in the afternoon match. Arnold looked up, pointed to my father and said, Ive got my partner. Bryon smiled and said, I was hoping youd say that.
Those two kind and generous displays of faith boosted my dads spirits. Dad would go on to win four of his next five matches and consider that week to be the pinnacle of his playing career. As a thank you to the gentleman captain, my mother and Winnie Palmer sought out a trophy maker in the town of Southport, England, and in a matter of days commissioned a replica of the Ryder Cup made for Byron. It is a tradition that still stands today.
Dad followed Byron into that ABC broadcast booth and served as lead analyst there for 22 years, calling the gentlemans game as he should have: politely, honestly, and with dignity and grace. After he passed away in 1997, my brother and I went to Augusta to spread his ashes. One day that week we ran into Byron in the clubhouse and introduced ourselves. Byron excused himself from the group of members, players and dignitaries to share his kindness with us, spending 10 minutes telling us about our pop, what a great player he was, and what a great guy he was. He told us how happy he was to captain Dads team, and how Dad always did things right. He said all the things two boys struggling with the loss of their hero needed to hear.
Later years I would see him at Augusta, on the first tee or at the Par-3 Tournament. Ever gracious, mentioning my dad or something he had seen me do on the channel, I would leave him with a smile on my face, always feeling better for having seen him. I believe the measure of a successful life is leaving the world a better place than you found it. In my opinion, Byron Nelsons legacy is reversed: 18 wins in a year and 11 in a row are the footnotes to a lifelong story of honesty, dignity, grace, and above all, kindness.