1912: A Year That Changed The Game - Byron Nelson
- By Jason Sobel
- Mar 13, 2012 10:01 PM ET
FORT WORTH, Texas – There is a rather ordinary, uninspiring piece of land on the outskirts of Waxahachie, a blue-collar countryside in Northeast Texas whose name has been loosely translated as a Native American term for cow manure. Drive past and you wouldn’t even give it a second look, just a desolate field on an otherwise desolate road.
This particular plot is positioned in a small area known as Long Branch, so small that when John Byron Nelson Jr. was born there 100 years ago, the location on his birth certificate simply stated: “Rural Area, Ellis County.” About a decade before he passed away, Byron and his wife Peggy made the hour-long journey from their Roanoke home in search of the past. When they arrived, even he couldn’t be certain that he was born on that property.
“Byron wasn’t even 100 percent sure that it was the right road, because there was no name to it,” Peggy explains. “There wasn’t anything there.”
The story holds ironic significance to this day. Six years after his death, it endures as one of the lone important landmarks in Nelson’s life unaffected by his impact, untouched by his uniquely influential legacy.
The house at 3109 Timberline Dr. is still standing. Sure, it’s been painted over the years – now resting at pistachio on the color wheel – and renovations have been made, but it is decidedly the same structure, bordered by Western cedar trees on either side. A modest ranch-style home on an acre of Fort Worth soil, this is where the Nelson family relocated when Byron was 10 years old.
It didn’t take long for the boy to meander his way down a few back roads and through a hole in a fence, emerging on the other side next to the fourth green at Glen Garden Golf & Country Club. Playing to a quirky 6,166 yards from the tips, the course features such abnormalities as a telephone tower in the middle of its 12th fairway and four par-3s in its last five holes.
It is here that his love for the game was first stoked, his jaunts through the fence leading to a caddieing job that in turn led to playing opportunities, a junior membership and eventually a professional career. And it is here that his name lives on, both literally – as etched into a monument alongside Ben Hogan and Sandra Palmer – and spiritually, evoking memories of a young man whose swing grew more formidable by the day.
“He’d come out to practice late in the afternoon,” recalls Wendell Waddle, a longtime course employee and member. “Back then, I was the only one in the pro shop in the afternoon looking after things. He’d say, ‘I’m going to hit a few balls.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, I’ll go pick ’em up.’ He started hitting balls down the first hole, but he never hit any short clubs of any kind.
“He was a big 2-iron player and then his 4- and 5-wood, he’d hit some of those. I still didn’t have to worry about running all over to pick them up. After he hit the first ball, I knew how far he could carry it. I’d step back and a lot of times, just catch it on the first bounce. At the end, they’d be in a big pile back there.”
Nelson didn’t just hone his golf swing at Glen Garden. He also learned humility and class, traits for which he was revered throughout his life. You can hear it in the reflections of those who knew him well – or you can read it on the clubhouse wall, in a letter he sent to the collective membership, dated May 31, 1989.
“I don’t think it would have been possible for me to develop such a good game of golf,” he wrote of the opportunity to play there. “I shall always be grateful to you good people for the friendship and good wishes from all you fine members.”
The story is the stuff of sports legend. In 1945, Nelson won 18 official tournament titles, including 11 consecutive at one point. Both marks easily stand as records to this day, which means, there isn’t a man alive or dead who could comprehend the burden he placed on himself during that campaign.
After winning his fifth straight, Byron started feeling the pressure from media who continually interrogated him as to how long he could keep it going. Prior to his next start, he told his first wife Louise, “I just want to blow up.” He then went out and played and upon his return, she asked, “So, did you blow up?” His reply: “Yes. I shot 66.”
With such weightiness resting upon his broad shoulders throughout that season, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one year later, at the age of 34 and with five major titles and 51 career PGA Tour victories to his name (he would add one more in 1951), Nelson quit playing the game competitively. Retired. Just walked away.
Money was never a priority for him. As soon as the lifelong farmboy had accumulated enough, he bought 630 acres of land on Aug. 26, 1946, for a grand total of $55,000, later expanding to 752 acres before contracting to the 551 that exist today. Now just off a highway renamed Byron Nelson Boulevard and resting on the aptly titled Eleven Straight Lane, the property he baptized Fairway Ranch still owns no front gate nor other privatized security measures, but maintains many of the values and vestiges of the man himself.
The mementos in his house – the first one on the right on Eleven Straight Lane – range from an exact duplicate of the plaque for Byron Nelson Bridge that exists at Augusta National Golf Club to the Congressional Gold Medal he received posthumously, just months after his death in 2006. Just across the driveway, a chicken house that was converted into his woodshop stands largely untouched, photos of bookshelves, dressers, desks and cabinets that he constructed still adorning the walls. And across much of those 551 acres remain rolling hills and farmland, Byron’s dream for an 18-hole golf course on this land eternally relinquished.
More than anything, though, his spirit lives on within those who still reside at the site he purchased so long ago.
After more than a half-century of marriage, Louise passed away after complications from multiple strokes in October 1985; Byron was remarried 13 months later to the former Peggy Simmons, who still lives on the ranch today. A firecracker of a woman, Peggy’s love for her husband endures in nearly everything she says and does. She is a stalwart at the PGA Tour-sanctioned HP Byron Nelson Championship, wrote a book about their life together and remains involved in nearly all of the activities they once mutually enjoyed. As if that isn’t enough, show her an early photo of Byron and her eyes light up in delight as she cackles, “What a good-looking dude!”
Just down the road from Peggy on Eleven Straight Lane lives Eddie Baggs. He came to Fairway Ranch more than three decades ago as a teenaged ranch hand, but quickly developed a bond with his employer that exceeded discussions of livestock and soil.
“He was part of my everyday life for 30-plus years,” says Baggs, who raised his family on the ranch. “I knew the man – the gentleman – Byron Nelson more than I knew the golfer. I was not a golfer. I had no interest or knowledge whatsoever. … I didn’t know who he was. Anyone off the street wouldn’t know, either. If you met him, you’d just think he was a nice, elderly man. You wouldn’t think he was Mr. Lord Byron Nelson.”
Baggs recalls an early conversation initiated by Nelson.
“You ever had some interest in the game of golf?”
“No sir, Mr. Nelson. I never have.”
“Well, you know, there’s a reason this is called Fairway Ranch.”
“Yes, sir. I kind of picked that up.”
“It would be nice if we could create some interest there with you.”
“OK, you’re the boss.”
And so Nelson presented his ranch hand a Wilson 9-iron blade and a paper sack filled one-quarter of the way with golf balls. He implored Baggs to hit three in a row without missing, then return and tell him about it. When he did, Byron handed him an 8-iron and asked that he do it again. Then a 7-iron. And a 6-iron. And so on, until he owned a full set of Nelson’s clubs.
When Baggs later attended Texas A&M University and enrolled in a golf class to satisfy his physical education requirement, the instructor asked where he had learned to swing the club.
“Well, you’re probably not going to believe me if I tell you …” he replied, “but Byron Nelson is the only instructor I ever had.”
When the HP Byron Nelson Championship is contested this May, it will feature a youth caddie program, course agronomy researched by students and children’s artwork hung throughout host venue TPC Four Seasons Resort. It may sound like the streamlined schematic of a slick public relations firm, but the end result has been nearly a century in the making.
Founded in 1920 by area business leaders, the Salesmanship Club of Dallas helps more than 7,000 troubled or at-risk children each year through its charitable arm, the Salesmanship Club Youth and Family Centers. The club also runs the event known around town simply as “The Nelson” – but that wasn’t always the case.
Through 1967, the tournament was called the Dallas Open Invitational, but it was struggling to recruit high-caliber talent and in turn attract enough spectators to make it a successful undertaking. Enter Byron, who was asked if he wanted to be the first golfer to have his name attached to the title of an event.
“We knew we had to make some changes,” recalls former tournament chairman Mike Massad Sr. “He was gracious and flattered. It was just sort of an informal, easy deal.”
What made the deal especially easy was that Nelson never asked for nor wanted a single dollar from the Salesmanship Club, instead lending his name to the effort because he believed in its mission.
“I know that when people are dead, other people tend to glorify them,” says Dr. Delane Kinney, executive director of the Salesmanship Club Youth and Family Centers. “But he was really an honorable man. It was never about money for him. It was about service, about giving people opportunities to achieve in life. And I think he really demonstrated that. The impact he had on this agency is a strong sense of respect that we show toward the families and kids, because he was so respectful himself.”
It is a collective feeling that permeates the tournament, even infiltrating an oft-jaded locker room, one that is annually filled with Nelson fans at his event.
“He lived life with such high integrity that I don't know of an individual in or out of golf that's lived as well as he did and as a better role model for people to follow, whether you play golf or not,” says 1996 tournament champion Phil Mickelson. “It's not any one story, it was just watching him interact with people, spending time with him and seeing the way he treated people and how uplifting it was. Everybody that was around him felt better about themselves. It's such a great quality.”
There are so many testimonials to Nelson as a person – both from those inside and outside of the game – that the words almost become numbing after a while, their unequivocal insistence of his good-heartedness lost in a sea of superlatives.
The most relevant comment about his character, though, is never lost for meaning. That’s because it comes from Byron himself, in reference to hosting his own PGA Tour event: “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.”
For such a humble namesake, the school fight song for Byron Nelson High School commences with a passage that sounds overly narcissistic:
"Hail to Byron Nelson
Lift your voices high…"
“If Byron heard that,” his widow Peggy says with a roll of her eyes, “he’d just be mortified.”
Nelson passed away before the school was constructed, named and established in 2009 with an approximate enrollment of 1,900 students, but its eponymous honoree may have been surprised by more than just the opening stanza. Byron dropped out of Polytechnic Senior High School in the 10th grade, choosing to pursue a career instead, though those who knew him best contend that his intelligence far outweighed his schooling.
“The thing I remember most about him is his integrity,” says Steve Barley, a longtime business partner and confidante. “He helped me with a couple of business decisions and – I mean this with all due respect – despite Byron’s education, his grasp of some things that I would talk to him about and his insight were pretty good.”
Though he never got to see the school named for him, Nelson’s thumbprints are on every part of the facility, from an eatery called Byron Bistro to a floral club called Byron Blooms to the nickname for its athletic teams – the Bobcats.
“The students were given a number of quotes from Byron when they were trying to pick out a mascot,” Peggy explains. “The one that they liked better than any of the others is: ‘Winners are different. They’re a different breed of cat.’ He wasn’t talking about someone who wins one tournament and you never hear from them again. He was talking about the ones who consistently win. And the students have just taken that to heart.”
A devoutly religious man, Byron helped organize the Church of Christ in Roanoke along with Louise and six other people in the early 1950s, its original occupancy in the garage of congregants.
Those humble surroundings were a far cry from the home of his final memorial service. The Hills Church of Christ is a massive monolith in North Richland Hills that in addition to traditional worshipping facilities also houses a coffee shop, bookstore and children’s playscape. Those luxuries were less appealing to Nelson, however, than his ability to practice his faith in a friendly environment.
“Byron was one of the few people who didn’t compartmentalize,” intimates Rick Atchley, Minister of the Word at the church. “On the course, he was a Christian playing golf. The context didn’t change; Byron changed the context. He wasn’t going to be anyone less than who he was.”
His memorial service was attended by 2,200 people, though as Peggy (above) explains, simple logistics prevented it from being more. “A lot of people didn’t think they would be able to get in,” she says. “And they were probably right.”
What they missed was a performance from his widow powered by inspiration.
Byron had always owned a close relationship with Payne Stewart. The two-time U.S. Open champion was not only an annual competitor in Nelson’s tournament, but a frequent guest at Fairway Ranch, where he and Byron would spend hours discussing the mechanics of the golf swing.
When Stewart died in a plane crash in 1999, both Byron and Peggy offered support to his wife Tracey and remained close to her in subsequent years. It was only fitting then that when Peggy found her husband lying on their back porch on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2006, one of her first phone calls was to Tracey, who almost immediately boarded a plane for Texas to be with her friend.
“I hadn’t really thought about speaking at Byron’s memorial service,” Peggy says. “I knew I was in a pretty fragile emotional state, but as I thought about Tracey Stewart, who was there at my home, helping me out with everything, and I thought about how she was able to stand up and speak for Payne at his service, I thought, ‘Well, if she can do that in such an awful, awful situation, then that would be a very small thing for me to be able to do for Byron.’ So I did it.
“And I did a doggone good job, too!”
If Peggy’s eulogy wasn’t the most powerful speech given that morning, then it paled only slightly in comparison to these words from the minister, which to this day can be recalled by most in attendance: “We can debate over which man was the greatest golfer, but we can never debate which golfer was the greatest man.”
Byron Nelson now rests at Roselawn Memorial Park cemetery in Denton, his gravesite just a short walk from both the Garden of Devotion and the Garden of Love. Hardly a mausoleum fit for a man of his influence, it remains perfectly Byron, just another in a long row of stones, each no more or less important than the next.
Fluttered leaves border its edges, the grass surrounding his name fraying and brown. Like his birthplace, there is no obvious sign here of the impact Nelson had on the world. They remain anomalies in a life that continues to affect so many people every single day.
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