My Time with Golfs Gentleman

By George WhiteSeptember 26, 2006, 4:00 pm
As great a golfer as he was, Byron Nelson had something about him which was far more difficult to achieve ' he was universally loved, respected and admired.
I cant honestly say that I really knew Mr. Nelson. Over the past 30 years Ive had the standard number of professional chit-chats, the requisite amount of interviewer-interviewee talks. But I have known a number of people in the golf profession who knew him as a friend. And to a person, they have universally lauded him as a kind, tender sort of man who was always the same to every person, be they a king, a president or an everyday son of the soil.
I first met and spoke with Mr. Nelson long ago at the Masters golf tournament. He walked into the dining room of the clubhouse and I recognized him immediately. Heart palpitating and tongue in a knot, I sidled up to him. An interview with Byron Nelson ' dare I even grasp at the possibility?
And he was as kind, as gracious a person as I have ever met. He gladly acceded to my halting attempts to question him. He patiently answered the usual questions for the thousandth time, explaining what thoughts went through his head as he piled up win after win en route to his incredible 11-victory streak in 1945. He spoke of the differences that he had seen in the Masters from the time he began playing in the mid-'30s and what it had become in the 80s.
I only spoke to him for perhaps 10 minutes. But it was awe-inspring; and at the same time it was very comfortable. Here was living, breathing history talking to me, but he was chatting to me in the same relaxed, down-home manner as my grandfather would.
Down through the decades, I have had the pleasure of listening to him discuss numerous topics in mass-interview situations. One of the annual highlights of the tournament which he sponsors ' the EDS Byron Nelson Championship ' was the Wednesday sitdown with the media when reporters were encouraged to ask whatever was on their minds and he rambled on about whatever topic they chose.
Mr. Nelson was always a gracious individual. Though he quit playing the professional golf tour at the age of 34 ' he had won enough, he said, to buy his ranch and settle down ' he never became fixated on how great he might have been. Instead, he gladly gave credit to others ' Tiger Woods, he felt, was a much better golfer than he. So was Jack Nicklaus. That was just Mr. Nelson.
The only thing that got his dander up was when someone slighted his record of 11 consecutive wins in 45. And then, he became irritated as much because he perceived his opposition was being downrated as he felt he personally was maligned. And the same was true as Tiger approached, then passed, his record of cuts made. It wasnt that he didnt feel Tiger deserved the mark. It was much more that he wanted to glorify the players against whom he, Byron Nelson, competed.
Nelson, you see, played during a time when often only 20 or so players would be paid. And those were the players who were considered to have made the cut. The fact that he survived 113 cuts was always a point of great pride, maybe as much as winning the 11 straight and 18 overall in 1945.
A blood disorder kept him from being eligible for military service in World War II. So he continued to play during the war years. But in 1946 he had had enough of the sporting scene and of being a hero. He bought his ranch near Fort Worth, settled down, and became just John Q. Everyman. How common a man was he? He had his name in the phone book - no private number for this very public gentleman.
The fact that he could have become the worlds greatest golfer didnt faze him. He didnt play for the records ' he played primarily to make the money where he could return to a simple, private life. And when he earned enough that he could settle into comfortable retirement, he did exactly that.
But I will always remember what he did for a scared young reporter who approached him nervously at Augusta . There has never been a man like Mr. Nelson. And ' oh, by the way ' he also was a great golfer.
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