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Nelson Remembered as More Than Great Player

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas -- With story after story reinforcing the notion that Byron Nelson was an even better gentleman than he was a golfer, longtime business manager and close friend Jon Bradley provided the anecdote that perhaps best framed the essence of the late 'Lord Byron.'
Bradley returned from a trip to the U.S. Golf Association's museum and recounted all the memorabilia from his friend's career that he'd seen. His only disappointment was that USGA officials didn't fire up the 'Iron Byron' swing machine so he could see it in action.
'No?' Nelson told him. 'But they did for me.'
That was Nelson: Proud of his golf legacy, eager to share it with others and puzzled that he'd be treated different from anyone else.
Although he considered himself an ordinary man, the memories shared during a 1 1/2 -hour memorial service Friday were far from it -- from a powerful speech by his widow, Peggy, to his minister calling Nelson 'the greatest man I've ever known.'
'We can debate over which man was the greatest golfer, but we can never debate which golfer was the greatest man,' said Rick Atchley, senior minister of the Richland Hills Church of Christ.
Nelson died Tuesday of natural causes at his Roanoke ranch. He was 94, and his last words were to Peggy as she headed out for church: 'I'm so proud of you.'
'I'm sure he would've wanted to say that to every one of you,' she told about 2,200 people, so many that she mouthed 'Wow' when she went stepped to the podium and looked out at the sanctuary.
The Nelsons were two months from their 20th anniversary. They celebrated their 238th month together a few months ago, continuing a tradition of treasuring every day that began early in their marriage. Nelson's first wife, Louise, died in 1985, having spent her final two years paralyzed by a stroke.
'With this man, who was better than a prince because his nickname was 'Lord Byron,' all my dreams ... came true,' Peggy Nelson said. 'He was my joy.'
Nelson touched many lives, as a friend, teacher and role model. He was deeply religious, yet showed it mostly through his devotion to his church.
His place in golf lore is sealed by his 52 wins, including five majors (he was a runner-up in six others) and a whopping 18 victories in 1945.
Anyone who has ever played golf can only marvel at his top feat, an 11-tournament winning streak in 1945 that is often compared to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak as the least likely to be topped. It's worth noting that folks have come closer to DiMaggio's streak than Nelson's.
While the purity of Nelson's swing is remembered most, several speakers referred to his large hands and powerful forearms.
And then there was the competitive nature often forgotten because of his sweet nature.
Bradley recalled Sam Snead telling everyone at a party commemorating The Streak that Nelson 'didn't drink, didn't dance ... I don't think he had any fun.'
'Byron put an arm on the podium, leaned over and said, 'Sam, you don't think winning 11 straight tournaments was fun?'' Bradley said.
Ben Crenshaw, among about a dozen pro golfers in the crowd, said before the service that Nelson was 'the most consistent player who ever lived.' He half-jokingly added, 'You cannot have won all those tournaments without a mean streak in you somewhere.'
Nelson retired at age 34 for the simple reason that he'd earned enough money to buy a ranch. After all, sports didn't pay the same in the 1940s as they do today, something he often reminded folks in his many stories.
Nelson remained close to the game over his final 60 years as a teacher, one of the first TV analysts and as a friend to everyone.
Players born long after Nelson got to know him through the PGA Tour stop named after him in 1968. It was the first to carry a player's name and has since become the tour's No. 1 fundraiser for charity. Nelson was a gracious host and a keen recruiter of talent; he once wrangled a sponsor's invitation for a high school kid named Tiger Woods.
He loved sending notes to players, 'and it wasn't always after a win,' said Justin Leonard, one of many Dallas-area golfers whose career Nelson was able to follow closely. 'It was encouragement when you weren't playing well.'
Ken Venturi and Tom Watson were Nelson's greatest pupils. Both attended the service, with Venturi speaking during the part of the service reflecting on Nelson's golf career; other parts focused on him as a friend, an uncle and Atchley talking about 'the man, the saint.'
'The game of golf would not be what it is today without Byron, the finest gentleman that ever was,' Venturi said. 'I can truly say I never heard anyone say anything bad about Byron or Byron say anything bad about anyone.'
Venturi said Nelson was like a father to him, and that he recently thanked him for it. He asked if there was anything he could do in return.
'Be good to the game, Ken, and give back,' Venturi said.
Nelson was always giving, from the notes to the advice to things he carved in his beloved woodworking shop on his ranch. Bradley visited the shop since Nelson's death and found 14 clocks in various stages of being built; among his final products were a dozen slivers branded with a psalm for each member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which competed last weekend.
Tom Lehman, captain of that squad, withdrew from the American Express Championship in England to fly to Texas for the service. Loren Roberts jeopardized his spot atop the Champions Tour points and earnings lists by dropping out of this weekend's event to be here.
Tracey Stewart, widow of Payne Stewart, flew in the day Nelson died to be with his widow. Payne Stewart befriended Byron Nelson during his college days at SMU; Byron Nelson spoke at services following Stewart's death in 1999.
Phil Mickelson, Corey Pavin, D.A. Weibring, Tom Purtzer and Brandt Jobe were among other golfers attending. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, Roger Cleveland -- whose company, Cleveland Golf, made the Byron Nelson line of clubs -- and broadcasters Pat Summerall, Jim Nantz and David Feherty also were in the crowd.
Nelson's legacy will endure through the Byron Nelson Championship. The event has generated more than $94 million for charity, earning him the government's top honor for philanthropy.
Unfortunately, the Senate did not approve the Byron Nelson Congressional Gold Medal Act until Wednesday, and it won't be official until being signed by President Bush. However, it went through the U.S. House earlier this year and Nelson knew late last week that there was enough support in the Senate.
Tournament sponsor EDS took out a full-page ad in The Dallas Morning News on Friday to honor his memory. 'A hero whose vision went beyond 18 holes' was written in all capital letters above a profile photograph.
'His legacy of kindness, humility and reaching out to help others in need will long outlive the legacy he left us on the course,' the ad read. 'We will remember Byron fondly as we carry on our commitment to his namesake tournament.'
Next year's event will be April 26-29, moved up from its usual May date.
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