BYRON NELSON, Ben
Hogan and Sam Snead, the first great American golf triumvirate, were all born
in the same year, 1912, and they all had crisp, legible, enduring signatures.
Hogan died in 1997, Snead in 2002 and Nelson, who left the vagabond life of the
mid-century touring pro a decade or more before the other two, last week, at
94. You'll see their names on golf clubs, golf shirts and golf tournaments for
years to come, not because they were so savvy at p.r., but for a more
fundamental reason: They had character. Nelson--who in 1945 won a record 11
straight events--was the sport's consummate gentleman.
Lord Byron, to use
his most unfitting nickname, was a deeply religious man who in retirement led a
simple life on a working ranch in Texas. But unlike Hogan, his former
caddie-yard rival, he made himself available to golfers and taught what he
knew, most notably to Ken Venturi and Tom Watson, who learned from Nelson to
slow down and breathe deeply while walking to the ball. Generations of teachers
have been fixated on Hogan's odd, flat, handsy swing, but Nelson was the true
progenitor of the modern golf swing: upright, simple, beautifully balanced,
with few moving parts. You see echoes of Nelson's action every time Tiger Woods
makes a swing.
He had been an
honored ancient for decades but remained relevant all the while. At the Masters
each April, Woods would always make it a point to spend time with Nelson. Tom
Lehman, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain this year, sought advice and Biblical
inspiration from Nelson. Lehman pulled out of a tournament in England to attend
Nelson's funeral, where he was joined by dozens of other players, retired and
When a player
received a handwritten note, adorned with that elegant signature, asking him to
come play in the Byron Nelson Classic, it was almost impossible to say no. In
1996 Nelson requested the presence of Phil Mickelson, who was supposed to go on
a vacation with his then fianc�e, Amy. Mickelson played--and won. Last Friday
the Mickelsons were among the 2,220 mourners at Nelson's funeral. "Amy and
I are so sorry for [ Nelson's widow] Peggy, but so happy for the great life of
Byron Nelson," Mickelson said. "It should be an example for all golfers
and for us all."
To TV watchers of
a certain age, Nelson was Johnny Miller before there was a Johnny Miller,
explaining the intricacies of the game as a commentator in the years when
Arnold Palmer, slashing away, was making golf look more brawny than brainy.
Byron Nelson never rushed a word, just as he never rushed a swing, or anything
else in his graceful life.