Lord Byron Nelson: The Gentleman from Waxahachie

Byron_Nelson_by_Acme,_1944

Byron Nelson impacted the game of golf for decades.  He played as a child into his 90s, established a record win streak that may never be broken, became the first professional golfer to have a PGA TOUR tournament named after him, served as a golf commentator for ABC, mentored young golfers such as Tom Watson, developed the modern golf swing, and performed as an honorary starter at The Masters for years after he retired from playing.  However, his gentlemanly demeanor that set the standard for sportsman-like conduct may be his greatest contribution to the game.

Born in Waxahachie, Texas in 1912, John Byron Nelson, Jr. learned at an early age the tenets of Christianity from his parents.  His faith dictated the way Nelson carried himself and treated others throughout his life.  His fellow golfers considered him to be the perfect gentleman, which inspired The Atlanta Journal’s O. B. Keeler (Bobby Jones’ friend, mentor and biographer) to give Nelson the nickname of “Lord Byron.”

Nelson began learning the game as an eleven-year old caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.  Three years later Nelson defeated fellow caddie and future golf great Ben Hogan in a tournament at the club.

By 1932, Nelson had elevated his game to that of a professional and earned a job as the golf professional at the Texarkana Golf Club two years later.  During the early 1930s, Nelson, like many golfers, switched from hickory-shaft woods to steel ones. He quickly realized a difference between swinging wood-shaft clubs and steel-shaft clubs.  With the way hickory shafts curved in the backswing, a golfer had to keep his lower body mostly still and generate power with his hands. Nelson recognized quickly that to be successful with steel-shaft clubs his swing would have to be redeveloped.  Nelson began to stand more upright and use his legs and feet to generate power.  He found that taking the club back straight, keeping his left arm rigid and with very little torque, he could keep the club head square through the hitting plane. Nelson then ascertained that he must keep his head still while his body shifted past it during the downswing.  Once he mastered his redesigned swing, Nelson found that he could repeat it easily and precisely.  He also found that his swing hit the ball with a more direct impact, which caused it to travel farther.  Consequently, Nelson is credited with developing the modern golf swing.  He also receives credit for designing the modern golf shoe and inventing the golf umbrella.

He joined the PGA TOUR in 1935 and won the New Jersey State Open that year for his first TOUR victory. That victory began an eleven year run that would witness 52 tournament championships, including the 1937 and 1942 Masters Tournaments, the 1939 United States Open, and the 1940 and 1945 PGA Championship titles.

The 1945 season for Nelson established him as one of the all-time great golfers.  He won eleven tournaments in a row and seven others, and he averaged 68.33 strokes per round, a record that stood until 2000 when Tiger Woods averaged 67.8.

Nelson retired from the TOUR to become a rancher in 1946, but never strayed far from the game.  He played on the 1947 United States Ryder Cup team and captained it in 1965.  Nelson came out of retirement briefly in 1951 to play the Bing Crosby Pro-Am and won the tournament for his last PGA TOUR victory.  He would play The Masters numerous times after retiring from the TOUR, finishing 15th in 1965.  While managing the ranch, Nelson also had time to mentor young golfers such as Ken Venturi and Tom Watson and serve as a golf commentator for ABC television in the 1960s into the 1980s.

His most enduring accolade may be the golf tournament renamed for him.  The Dallas Open became the Byron Nelson Classic in 1968 (it is now called the AT&T Byron Nelson).  The Salesmanship Club of Dallas organizes the tournament.  Much of the tournament proceeds go to help at-risk youth at the Salesman Club Youth and Family Centers in the Dallas area.  Nelson’s tournament has raised more than $100 million for the charity and became a special interest to him for years. Nelson in 2000 stated, “It (the tournament) has meant more to me, golf-wise, than anything.”

The gentleman from Waxahachie became one of the original eleven male inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 and passed away in 2006 at the age of 94.  Lord Byron arguably contributed more to the game of golf than any one individual and did so with a charm and grace unparalleled in the sport.  Some golf historians claim Nelson was the greatest golfer that ever lived.  While that may be debatable, everyone who ever encountered him would agree that Nelson had a gift for making people feel special, and that may be the greatest compliment one person can give to another.  Cheers to Lord Byron Nelson!

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