Museum Moment: Celebrating 100 Years Of Byron Nelson

By Michael Trostel, USGA
February 2, 2012

Byron Nelson (right), who would have turned 100 on Feb. 4, receives the U.S. Open Trophy in 1939 at Philadelphia Country Club from defending champion Ralph Guldahl. (USGA Museum)

Many athletes have walked away from their sport near their prime of their careers or immediately following a championship victory, but few can resist the temptation of coming out of retirement for one last shot at glory. Even Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, came back to the NBA after three years of retirement before finally calling it quits in 2003.

Golf, however, is a sport unlike many others. While athletes in tennis, football and baseball often peak in their mid-to-late 20s, golfers win well into their 30s, or later – as evidenced by Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, who both won three majors after their 40th birthdays.

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Photo Gallery: A Tribute To Byron Nelson 

But two of the greatest golfers of all time voluntarily cut their careers short to pursue other interests.

At age 28, exhausted from the rigors of competitive golf, Bob Jones retired immediately after winning the Grand Slam in 1930. Jones wanted to spend time with his family and focus on his law practice and golf instruction videos. In 1933, Jones co-founded Augusta National Golf Club.

And then there is Byron Nelson – the humble, affable, smooth-swinging Texan who won 11 consecutive PGA events (and 18 total) in 1945 before retiring the following year.

Nelson, whose 100th birthday is Feb. 4, won 32 tournaments between 1944 and 1946, but drained from the grind of competition and wanting to provide a home for his wife, Louise, Nelson retired from competitive golf and used his winnings to buy a ranch in Roanoke, Texas, where he lived for more than 50 years. He died in 2006, at age 94.

Overcoming Illness and Introduction to Golf 

Nelson was born on a farm in Long Branch, Texas – about 12 miles southeast of Waxahachie. His father, John, was a cotton farmer who inherited the land from his father, who died of tuberculosis when John was 6 years old. Nelson’s mother, Madge, nearly died when giving birth to Byron. A doctor was called in when it appeared that the lives of both the 18-year-old mother and the 12-pound, 8-ounce baby were in jeopardy. Both survived, however, and lived long, full lives with Madge living to age 98.  

When he was about 10 years old, Nelson was bitten by a dog with rabies and was forced to travel to Austin for treatment, which at that time required a regimen of 21 shots in 21 days. Shortly after he returned home, Nelson developed a severe case of typhoid fever which kept him bedridden for several months. He frequently ran temperatures of over 106 degrees and lost more than 60 pounds – half his body weight at the time.

Once he regained his heath, Nelson started caddieing at Glen Garden Golf and Country Club to make some spending money. When Nelson started the job, he knew nothing about golf whatsoever, but learned from observation and imitation of club members and fellow caddies.

Iron Byron and Bantam Ben 

When Nelson was 13, he met Ben Hogan, who was already a regular caddie at Glen Garden when Nelson started. During a Christmas party for members, Hogan and another young caddie had a boxing match that caught the attention of the crowd.

“The club always had us [caddies] do something that would entertain the people at the club,” said Nelson in a 1991 oral history interview with the USGA. “Ben was a small kid then. They boxed for about 15 minutes and no one got hurt or knocked down. Everybody gave ’em a big hand. That was the first time I was really conscious of Ben.”

Nelson and Hogan would get acquainted on the practice range at Glen Garden as well, frequently pounding balls for hours after the other caddies had gone home.

As 15-year-olds, Nelson and Hogan established themselves as the two best players in the caddie yard. Each winter, Glen Garden held a nine-hole caddie tournament and on this occasion, Nelson and Hogan tied at the end of regulation, both shooting 40.

“It was decided since it wasn’t dark we had time to play nine more holes to determine a winner,” said Nelson. “The members were caddieing for us and there was actually a small gallery watching.”

This time, Nelson shot a 39 to edge Hogan by a single stroke and win the coveted caddie championship. Interestingly, the boys swapped the prizes they received for the tournament. Nelson received a 5-iron for winning, but he since he already had one, he exchanged it with Hogan, who had received a 2-iron for finishing second.

Marriage and Turning Professional  

Nelson met his first wife, Louise Shofner, in 1933 after a Sunday church service in Texarkana, where he held his first job as a golf professional. Though Louise already had a date to the party following the service, she caught Byron’s eye. He asked her on two dates the following week, but was rebuffed both times. In Byron’s words, she was popular and “all dated up” with other young men. But Nelson’s persistence paid off. He sat next to her during the next few church services and eventually took her on a date to the movies. They married the following year and remained together for more than 50 years until her death in 1985.

When asked who influenced him most in his career, Nelson didn’t cite a former player or instructor, but always answered “Louise.”

“When I came along, the game was going through a big change in how it was played and how the golf club was swung,” Nelson said. “So there was a lot of experimenting and tinkering. But my wife knew exactly how to handle me. Sometimes she’d sympathize with me… and other times she wouldn’t.”

Nelson laughed recalling one of those “other times” from the 1935 U.S. Open at Oakmont, shortly after the couple had married. They stayed in a church basement with no windows because money was tight and it was a cheaper option than a hotel. When Nelson came back after a day of practice, he told Louise that he needed a new driver because he wasn’t hitting his very well.

“She said ‘Byron’ – and when she said Byron I knew there was something wrong because she always used to call me ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart,’” said Nelson. “She said, ‘Byron, I know things are tough and we don’t have much money. I haven’t had new clothes in a year and I haven’t minded that, but in the last year you’ve had five new drivers. Either you don’t know what kind of driver you want or you don’t know how to drive.’”

The couple had a good laugh about that exchange and the next day, Nelson used some clubmaking tools at Oakmont to shape the head of his driver to something that better fit his eye.

“I only had three drivers for the rest of my whole life,” Nelson said.

Competitive Career 

In 1937, Nelson won his first major – the Masters Tournament. Trailing Ralph Guldahl by two strokes with only nine holes remaining, Nelson birdied the 10th and 12th holes and eagled the par-5 13th to surge ahead of Guldahl, who played Amen Corner in 3-over-par. The Nelson Bridge on the 13th hole was dedicated in 1958 to commemorate that feat.

“That victory made me realize that I could compete out there,” said Nelson. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”

Two years later, Nelson found himself in a three-way playoff with Craig Wood and Denny Shute for the U.S. Open at Philadelphia Country Club. He had recently taken a job at Reading (Pa.) Country Club, only 44 miles from the course, and was staying at home for that week. Nelson started poorly, bogeying three of the first seven holes in the championship, but he eventually righted the ship and sank an 8-foot-putt on the 72nd hole to earn his way into the playoff.

Both Nelson and Wood shot 68 in the playoff to force another 18 holes. In the second playoff, Nelson parred the first two holes, birdied the third and holed out with a 1-iron from 215 yards for an eagle 2 on the par-4 fourth. He shot a 70 to Wood’s 73 to win his only U.S. Open title. Nelson’s 1-iron is now displayed in the “Depression and World War II” gallery in the USGA Museum.

Because of a blood disorder, Nelson could not serve in World War II, but he and fellow Tour pro Jug McSpaden traveled across the country playing in exhibition matches to raise money for the Red Cross and United Service Organizations.

“During that period of time, both of us felt that we were doing more, in a way, for the war effort than what we could have done if we were carrying a gun because of the work we did,” said Nelson.

The exhibition matches kept Nelson’s game sharp and when the PGA Tour resumed play in 1944, he hit the ground running, winning eight times. Despite the excellent year, Nelson spent considerable time evaluating each round to see where he was losing shots.

“I did it like a man taking inventory at the end of a year’s business,” said Nelson.

He found two things that were consistently costing him strokes: sloppy chipping and poor concentration. He made it his New Year’s Resolution in 1945 to improve his short game and concentrate harder to eliminate careless shots.

That year, Nelson rewrote the record books. He won 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row, and finished runner-up eight times. In total, Nelson finished first or second in a remarkable 25 of the 30 events he entered in 1945.

Interestingly, the statistic Nelson was proudest of wasn’t the 18 total wins or the streak of 11 straight victories, but his consistency – he made 113 consecutive cuts over a span of four years.

“I felt that the steadiness with which I played my game was really the thing that I enjoyed most, in a way, than anything else that happened to me in golf,” said Nelson. “That proved a lot to myself and gave me the confidence to go out and win.”

 Though some of the Tour players served in the military between 1942 and 1945, many continued to play a full complement of events, including Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.

The Great Triumvirate 

Born months apart in 1912, Nelson, Hogan and Snead were instrumental in growing the game of golf in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The trio amassed a total of 21 major championships and nearly 200 PGA Tour wins, dominating – and perhaps even saving – professional golf at a time when the game was searching for a star in the aftermath of Bob Jones’ retirement and the Great Depression.

Nelson succeeded more quickly than either Hogan or Snead. He won four majors before either Hogan or Snead had won their first. But it was the triumvirate’s competitive nature that drove each to get better, elevating not only their own games, but the product of professional golf as a whole.

Nelson had both respect and admiration for his contemporaries and two main rivals. When asked who was the best player he competed against, Nelson did not hesitate.

“Hogan and Snead. Or Snead and Hogan. Whichever way the name comes out first, because they’re both so great,” said Nelson. “When you went out and played with these two men you knew one thing for sure – you had to play real well because they were not going to play badly.”

Retirement and Legacy 

 Nelson retired after the 1946 season at age 34. He used his tournament winnings and sponsorship money to pursue his dream, paying $55,000 cash for a 630-acre ranch in Roanoke, Texas.

“The ranch was one of the main reasons I was able to have the drive or desire to continue to play so long and hard in 1945,” said Nelson. “Louise and I had both been through the Great Depression and we didn’t want to borrow money to buy it. So every time I won a tournament, I’d say, ‘There’s another 10 acres or another cow.’”

Nelson competed at every Masters Tournament until 1966, but otherwise made very few appearances in golf tournaments following his retirement. He also served as a golf commentator for ABC for several years and wrote a few instructional books to keep some money coming in.

In the early years at the ranch, Nelson spent his time mending fences and raising cattle and turkeys. The only business that proved profitable for the ranch was chicken farming. Nelson had 17,000 laying hens with an appropriate number of roosters and sold the eggs to a hatchery in Oklahoma. The hatchery boasted that the Nelsons had one of the best fertility rates among their vendors.

Later, Nelson became an accomplished wood worker, making furniture for the ranch and crafts that he often gave away as gifts.

A year after Louise died, Byron married Peggy Simmons in 1986. The couple had met briefly in June 1981 at a charity golf outing at NCR Country Club in Ohio in which Nelson was playing and they reconnected at the same event five years later.

More than anything, Peggy Nelson remembers her husband’s humility, patience and perseverance.

“Probably the thing that meant the most to him wasn’t all the wins, but it was being able to help people. He never had a lot of money, but he gave his time as much as he could and really touched a lot of people.”

One place where his name has been used to generate good is at Byron Nelson High School in Trophy Club, Texas. The school, which opened in 2009, will graduate its first full class in June. When discussions began three years earlier about naming the school after the famous golfer, Nelson was originally reluctant, according to Peggy.

“But once he saw that it could be a positive influence on the teachers and children, he supported it,” said Peggy Nelson.

Teachers, coaches and even the school’s principal, Linda Parker, often cite the example Nelson set and tell the more than 2,100 children who now attend the school to, “Go make Byron proud.”

Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. E-mail questions or comments to mtrostel@usga.org. 

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