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Beyond the numbers

True measure of Nelson was his amazing generosity

Posted: Tuesday September 26, 2006 11:56PM; Updated: Wednesday September 27, 2006 7:31PM
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Byron Nelson quit competitive golf in his prime, in 1946 when he was just 34.
Byron Nelson quit competitive golf in his prime, in 1946 when he was just 34.
Darren Carroll/SI

Forget this number: 11, the number of consecutive tournaments Byron Nelson won in 1945, a record that will never be broken. And forget this number: 18, the number of total tournaments he won that year, also a record that's safely tucked away. And ignore these numbers, too: 68.33, his scoring average that season; and 113, the number of consecutive cuts he made, records that stood for more than a half-century until Tiger Woods came calling.

To know the true measure of Lord Byron, look past the numbers he produced with his swing and look at the one number he produced with his kindness: $94 million, the amount of money raised for charity by his annual PGA Tour event in the Dallas area.

In the wake of Nelson's death on Tuesday at age 94 (that number again), the focus will be on his magical 1945 season that few of us can comprehend but all of us can appreciate. If you're defining his career by that year, however, you're simply missing the point of his life.

Although I grew up in the Dallas area and covered plenty of Byron Nelson Championships, I don't claim to have known the man, my few interviews coming in group settings. But I know the reputation, of his gentle and easy-going nature, built on humble origins and lack of ego.

I always wondered why it was that Nelson was the only player to have a Tour stop named after him. After all, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are tied to events, but their names aren't officially on the marquee. And that little tournament in Augusta is not called the Bobby Jones Invitational.

Meanwhile, Nelson's name has been attached to the Dallas tour stop since 1968. The reason now seems simple. He's an easy sell -- for tickets, for sponsors, for big-name players and for charities. His affable personality made it difficult for anybody to say no. He wrote friendly notes to players, requesting their presence in his tournament. It was a gentle form of begging ... and it usually worked.

In fact, he sold the tournament before he was actually attached to it, having convinced Palmer to play the 1967 event in Dallas. Not surprising, Nelson was there to pick up Palmer when Arnie arrived in Texas, taking active involvement to the next level.

Contrast that to the tournament on the other side of the Metroplex, the Colonial in Fort Worth, which has a loose connection with Nelson's childhood acquaintance, Ben Hogan. If you're lucky enough to get inside the Colonial clubhouse, you can check out some of Hogan's trophies, but the man himself, a model of aloofness, seemed to keep the tournament at arm's length -- which only served to amplify Nelson's commitment to his own event.

Byron Nelson quit competitive golf in his prime, in 1946 when he was just 34. He loved the sport, but no longer had the hunger necessary to compete on Tour. Who knew then that his greatest contributions were still to come ... and would last for 60 more years.