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The Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas, where the PGA tour stops this week, is typical of a kind of club that exists in or near every sizable American city. It is a sporting refuge of wealthy and powerful men and others who aspire to wealth and power, a place that carefully straddles the line between ostentation and invisibility. A member of such a club would not be the sort to boast of his advantages, but neither would he care for them to go altogether unnoticed.
Byron Nelson is a lifetime honorary member of Preston Trail. At 67, a prosperous rancher, a businessman, a sitter on boards of directors, he would be indistinguishable from other members of his age and station if it were not for his hands. Nelson's hands are huge—thick of palm and long of finger, powerful and weathered. With those hands Nelson won the life he now leads; because of those hands and the magic he performed with them almost four decades ago, this week's tournament is named for him. During a professional career that began in Texarkana, Texas in 1932 and came to an end in Portland, Ore. in 1946, Nelson did things that no golfer has done since. For some of those 14 years he was unquestionably the best golfer alive, and for most of them he was a superlative striker of the ball, a player whose long irons were very nearly perfect.
Yet history has treated Nelson somewhat grudgingly. The record of his deeds remains heroic, but his story has never taken on the proportions of a proper legend. The trouble is that Nelson made it all seem so sinfully easy. Legends do not just step up to the plate, take a warmup swing or two and then hit the ball over the centerfield fence. Legends first point to the centerfield fence.
Nelson was never one for histrionics. In his own mind he was always about equal parts golfer and farmer. His body may have been on the road playing golf for most of 14 years, but his soul lived on an imaginary piece of land somewhere in Texas. By the time he retired, at 34, he had found the place of his daydreams, and that is where he has stayed ever since.
Fairway Ranch lies off Route 114 in Roanoke, 22 miles north of Fort Worth—750 acres of rolling pastureland sustaining 68 head of beef cattle. At the end of a long asphalt drive, in an island of shade trees, is a comfortable two-story house of red brick, gray shingles and neat white trim. Flowers bloom, birds chirrup, snow-white guinea hens dart in and out of hedges and gray speckled Plymouth Rocks cluck in a hen house nearby.
"I just love chickens," said Nelson one late spring day as he surveyed his peaceable kingdom. "There's no creatures alive that's more appreciative of what you do for them. They're as nice as a dog."
The midday temperature that day was rising into the 90s, but inside, the ranch house was dim and cool. Lunch was from the garden that is Nelson's particular personal delight—new potatoes, sweet corn, young greens and strawberries. Nelson sat at the head of the long, gleaming table with his wife, Louise, at his right. He is a big man, 6'1" tall and about 185 pounds these days. His television persona, the one that grew out of his 10-year role as Chris Schenkel's yellow-jacketed sidekick on ABC's golf coverage, the one with the round, amiable face and mildly self-deprecating manner, is contradicted in his presence by his height, his bearing and the direct gaze of his pale blue eyes. As host at Fairway Ranch, saying grace at his own table over food from his own garden, he is assured and dominant.
There are few indications that an athlete is in residence at the Nelson house—no trophy cases, no room set aside as a shrine to youthful glories. The ranch is all the souvenir Nelson has ever needed. It is his perpetual trophy, a constant reminder of where he began, where he has been and how he got where he is.
The beginnings were in Fort Worth, in the hard '20s, when money and jobs were tight. Living near the Glen Garden golf course, Nelson began caddying for pocket money when he was 12 and soon enough was playing, too, becoming "a pretty fair, funky player," he recalls. At 16, to help make ends meet, he quit high school and went to work as a file clerk at the Fort Worth & Denver City Railway, practicing golf in the mornings as soon as the sky was light and in the evenings until it was too dark to see.
Two years later, with the Great Depression deepening, Nelson was laid off by the railroad, and since there were no jobs for anyone, anywhere, he gravitated to the pro shop and began to work on his game in earnest. He became good enough to qualify locally for the 1931 U.S. Amateur, but after scraping up enough money to get to Chicago on a day coach, he failed to make the field. "I had never seen or heard of a bent-grass green before," he says. "I had played on sand greens and Bermuda, but these were frightening, slick and fast. I three-putted everything."