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Sarah Pileggi
May 07, 1979
In those days he was Lord Byron and set records still unequaled. Then, at 34, Byron Nelson quit the game to fulfill an old dream
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May 07, 1979

Good Lord Of Golf

In those days he was Lord Byron and set records still unequaled. Then, at 34, Byron Nelson quit the game to fulfill an old dream

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"He kept on wanting and wanting a ranch, but I didn't want him to have one because he didn't know anything about ranching and I was afraid he would lose everything he had worked so hard for. But he kept on wanting it. So finally I said, 'All right, but you cannot touch any of our investments. You have to earn every bit of it.' I said, 'I've got both feet in concrete and I'm not changing. We've worked hard and I'm afraid you'll lose it ranching.'

"Looking back on it I realize I was being selfish. But anyway, he got himself busy and he made a lot of money. That was 1945. When he had saved up over $50,000 in cash, he thought he could start looking. But it wasn't enough money, and I said, 'Well, you're just going to have to work another year. You'll have to work through the National Open.' We made a pact we wouldn't tell anyone, and we didn't. He almost won that Open. It was when his caddie stepped on his ball."

The 1946 U.S. Open at Canterbury in Cleveland was the first in five long years, and the galleries were huge. Fairways were not roped off in those days, which meant that 12,000 people raced to get a spot behind each shot as the leaders played their final rounds. At the 13th hole of the morning round (the last two rounds of the Open were both played on the same day. Open Saturday, until 1965) Nelson's caddie, a young man named Eddie Martin, still in uniform and on furlough from the Army, accidentally stepped on Nelson's ball in his effort to get out of the way of the on-rushing gallery. The error cost Nelson a penalty stroke.

In spite of the penalty, Nelson reached the 71st hole needing only a par and a bogey to win. Instead he took two bogeys, ending up in a three-way tie with Vic Ghezzi and Lloyd Mangrum, then lost to Mangrum in the second 18-hole playoff the next day; the three had shot identical 72s in the first playoff round. Of those last two holes of regulation play, one newspaper said, "After playing superb golf, perhaps the finest from tee to green ever seen in any championship. Nelson, the great shotmaker, became just another golfer...."

"I cried for a week after that," said Louise. "But I was just selfish enough that I wanted him to go out a real champion and be able to say, 'Well, boys, that's that.' So he went on and played through the PGA in Portland. But he wasn't playing the way he had been."

"I had already quit in my mind," said Nelson quietly.

The last scene of the 14-year adventure that had begun on a bus leaving Fort Worth for Texarkana in 1932 was not the kind a Hollywood writer of the period would have dictated. But the epilogue was. No discharged GI in America was any happier to be going home than Byron Nelson was in 1946. The ranch had cost him all he had, but it was finally his, and the job of transforming it from the dried-up derelict of a place that it was when he first saw it into the tranquil oasis it is today was a labor made sweeter by its long postponement.

Only once more did Nelson play golf for the prize money in it. He had been retired four years, and by then had realized that he was going to need more income than the ranch and his modest investments could produce. At that point he got a call from Jim Shriver, a MacGregor golf-equipment salesman. Shriver suggested a series of exhibition matches in the Pacific Northwest, Shriver's sales territory, for the spring of 1951. Nelson agreed and Shriver set about booking the matches.

But those four years of retirement might as well have been 40, so quickly had Nelson's star descended and Hogan's risen. The memory of Nelson's triumphs had dissipated like mist on a summer morning. Shriver could book only three matches. The whole project seemed doomed until Nelson received an invitation to play in the 1951 Bing Crosby pro-am with Ed Lowery, an old friend from San Francisco.

"I thought to myself," says Nelson, "if I play O.K. I could get a little publicity and maybe I can make those matches." So he went to work on his game for a month, and when January arrived he went to Pebble Beach. He not only played "O.K.," he won the tournament, the first he had played in four years, beating Cary Middlecoff by three strokes.

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