Sunday, October 08, 2006

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" ---- 10-14-06

Remembering: Byron Nelson

He once remarked that all he ever wanted out of golf was enough money to buy a ranch in his native Texas. Yes, John Byron Nelson Jr. surely accomplished that but, along the way, also acquired a universal adoration that most sports figures only dream about. His place in golf history is well cemented, but he'll be remembered for being much more than a master of eighteen holes.

Byron Nelson first started taking golf seriously as a caddie at the Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth--eventually beating a fellow youngster named Ben Hogan one year at the caddies' championship. Time passed as he continued to play some good golf and make a name for himself; in the meantime, the few jobs that he held offered very little security--causing him to turn professional in 1932. He developed a golf swing that others would soon envy--an upright, compact stroke that was nothing less than splendid in its simple fluidity. Before the end of the decade, he'd win the Masters (1937) and the U.S. Open (1939)--but the sports world had still only caught the very beginnings of a fine legacy to be left by a golfer coined "Lord Byron."

Yeah, he'd win the '40 PGA Championship and the '42 Masters, but a man named Nelson will always be remembered for 1945; for this discussion, we'll call it "The Year." He'd record a phenomenal 11 straight PGA Tour victories--18 in all during a fabulous stretch when he was NEVER out of the top ten while, at one juncture, playing 19 consecutive rounds under 70. To this day, the 11 straight wins on tour in 1945 have been compared to DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak--some even saying it was MORE impressive than the "Yankee Clipper's" feat. At one point, Byron Nelson made the cut in 113 consecutive events--a mark only recently topped by a man named Woods. All in all, he captured 31 of 54 tournaments in 1944-'45--only to retire after the '46 season at the age of 34 to spend more time on his Texas ranch. Yes, golf had served "Lord Byron" well.

I never had the opportunity to meet the great Byron Nelson; perhaps if I had once made the trek down to his yearly tournament near Dallas (the only tour stop named after a professional golfer), I would have made the acquaintance of a man who was much more than a golf icon. He was a man who touched many--whether it was as a teacher (he tutored players such as Tom Watson) or as a charitable individual; his yearly tournament has raised close to $100 million for charity since its inception in 1968. But now for his TRUE legacy: Over the years, it became very clear that Byron Nelson was even a finer gentleman than he was a golfer; ah, if only a small percentage of athletes followed suit, huh? The great Ken Venturi once called him "the finest gentleman the game has ever known." Byron befriended a young guy named "Tiger" when the teenager once played in a junior event--ultimately inviting the kid to play in his tournament in 1993. Tiger Woods would later say that Mr. Nelson was the "greatest ambassador golf has ever known." Finally, in a statement, legendary golfer Arnold Palmer referred to Nelson's heroics of 1945 as surely memorable--although not what he will remember most about Byron. "He was a fantastic person whom I admired from the time I was a boy," offered Arnie. Yes, while preparing this short tribute to a true golf legend, I came across NO individual who ever had a negative word to say about one Byron Nelson; we all should be so lucky.

Byron Nelson is gone now--passing away recently of natural causes at the age of 94. But what a legacy he leaves; it's one that includes "The Year" and 52 tour victories overall--including five majors. However (and more important), his capturing the admiration of millions of people--not just those involved with the game of golf--is what sets him apart. Yes, he always wanted his ranch, and obtained it, but it seems as though some other things may have taken priority in his life as witnessed by these words he offered the AP in 1997: "I don't know very much. I know a little about golf. I know how to make a stew. And I know how to be a decent man."

We'll miss you, "Lord Byron."

Bob Lazzari

Reprinted by permission of the Valley Times.


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