On Golf: Byron Nelson, “A Great Player, and a Nice Man”

I learned from the New York Times that Byron Nelson, a legendary golfer, died recently. Dave Anderson wrote a story about him with the title that you can see in quotes in the title of this post. Here are a few excerpts from Dave’s column:

Byron Nelson had won nine consecutive golf tournaments in 1945, but as the streak grew, wherever he went the local newspaper headline shouted, “Can Nelson Win Again?”

The next day he shot 68, then another 68 and a 67, a total of 19 under par, for his 10th consecutive victory. He soon added the Canadian Open for 11 in a row, the PGA Tour record that no other golfer has even approached.

Only a few record streaks in sports appear unbreakable, like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Johnny Unitas’s 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. But Nelson’s streak may endure as the most unbreakable of all. Unlike DiMaggio or Unitas, who each had teammates and sometimes lesser opponents, Nelson did it by himself. He won 18 of the 30 tournaments that year, another record.

Since Byron Nelson died Tuesday at 94 of natural causes at his Roanoke, Tex., home, just about everybody in golf has had a kind word to say about him. Just as he always had a kind word to say about just about everybody in golf.

“If whenever people mention great players, they think of Nelson, too, that would be nice,” he once said. “But I prefer being remembered as a nice man with a lot of integrity, as somebody people could love and trust, as being friendly and a good Christian man. I don’t think I know anybody who has as many friends as I do. It’s very gratifying. If I had made $20 million when I played golf, I probably wouldn’t be as good of a man as I am now. If I made all the money in the world, my life wouldn’t have been improved on.”

The son of a Bible-scholar mother, Nelson was never heard using bad language. He rarely had a drink. He never smoked, but when he signed a six-month, $500 contract to appear in advertisements for Twenty Grand cigarettes, it produced angry letters from Sunday school teachers.

“I told the Twenty Grand people I’d give the money back if they’d stop the ads, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t,” Nelson once explained. “I promised the good Lord if he’d forgive me, I’d never let anyone else down and try to be a good example, and I’ve worked very hard doing that.”

“I once asked Byron why, wherever we went, he would always go into the pro shop and ask, ‘What is the course record and who holds it?’ ” Venturi recalled. “He told me: ‘If the home pro owns the course record, you don’t break it. The home pro lives there. We’re just visitors.’ Now that’s class.”

Of all the great golfers, Nelson was considered the straightest hitter. Harvey Penick, the revered teaching pro, described Nelson’s thin divots as resembling “a dollar bill,” a tribute to his repetitive swing. Another tribute is the tall flagpole at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey, where Nelson was an assistant pro after winning the 1937 Masters.

Nelson hit the ball so straight, the caddies there once challenged him to try to hit the flagpole about 100 yards away across the practice green from the slate deck outside the pro shop. Together, the caddies put up about 55 cents. They put down three balls on the deck and gave Nelson three shots to hit the flagpole, which was about six inches wide.

“I used my 3-iron,” Nelson often recalled with a smile. “My first ball just missed the flagpole, then my second clanged off it. I picked up the 55 cents.”

By the way, the precision of his shotmaking is extraordinary. I once read a book put together back in the ’60s by a team of British physicists and engineers to report on the lessons they learned in studying the mechanics and physics of golf. Almost all you need to know about that study can be found in the following fact they observed:

The face of the golf club and the golf ball are in contact for about one ten-thousandth of a second!

I recall reading in that book, or another book about golf, about a golf teacher who always sat in front and to the side of his student, so that he could never see the actual swing. You see, he knew about the ten-thousandth of a second, which means all he had to observe was the flight path of the ball, and from that he could detect the flaws in the swing.

The instantaneous contact also means that all the folks who think they can shape their shot by twisting their wrists as they hit the ball, or any of the other “tips” that are the staple of golf magazines, are misguided in their hopes.

But that’s beside the point.

What finer epitaph could anyone have on their tombstone, after they had played the last round in that greatest game of all — the game of life:

A Great Player, and a Nice Man

Copyright (c) 2006 by David Shields. Licensed under the Apache License 2.0.



  1. Grady Philpott
    Posted April 24, 2007 at 21:17 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m 57 years old and I’m taking up golf for the first time. I have yet to hit a ball with my new clubs, waiting for my first lesson tomorrow. In the couple of weeks since I made the decision to approach this endeavor, I have been studying golf, it’s players, and it’s equipment exhaustively.

    I never knew anything about Byron Nelson, but one of the things that I have noticed about the game of golf is the caliber of men and women who have played the game and from what I have read, Nelson stands at or near the front of those individuals and it is a humbling thing to know that one is attempting to not just master a game, but to have such men’s lives to look to for inspiration.

  2. Posted July 30, 2007 at 06:06 | Permalink | Reply

    I think it’s commendable that you pay homage to someone who hasn’t been given enough credit.

    It’s inspirational to learn about a record holder who was not only excellent at his sport but also as a human being.

    Pune Golf

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