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.
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.
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.