By Peter Kessler
Byron Nelson was born in Texas in 1912, the same year as his rivals Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. He died in September of 2006. The first player to make a successful transition from hickory to steel shafts in the early 1930s, Nelson never made a swing change after his 24th birthday. He never needed to. He was the first of his great triumvirate to win majors and set records. He traveled by car when there was no modern tour, when fresh tires were a player’s best friend. And after winning every important American event, he left the tour at age 34 and bought the Texas ranch he’d dreamed of. He has lived there with his first wife, Louise, who died in 1985, and then with his second wife, Peggy. Nelson played with Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen. He did better against Hogan and Snead than they did against him. The best player in the world from 1937 until he retired in 1946, he left behind one unbreakable record—his 11 straight victories in 1945—and several that were as remarkable, including 113 consecutive top-20 finishes and 18 wins in a stretch of 30 events in a single season. He was the perfect interview. Over many years, things had gotten to the point where I didn't really ask him questions anymore—I offered a phrase or a few scant words, and Byron Nelson told his wonderful stories, as fluid as honey. I was recently asked if I would like to have had a mind like his at age 93. My answer: Why do I have to wait 40 years?
We spoke for the last time at the TPC at Las Colinas, not far from his ranch, Fairway Ranch in Roanoke, Texas, where Nelson lived for 59 happy years.
Tell me about the caddie tournament at Glen Garden in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1927, when you and Ben Hogan were 15 years old.
The members at Glen Garden threw a party each Christmas and invited the caddies to turkey dinner. Before dinner, the members would caddie for the caddies. We played 9 holes, and par was 37. That year, Ben and I tied with 40s. There was still plenty of daylight, so the members decided we would have a playoff. So we played another nine. He shot 40 and I made about a good 15-footer on the last hole for a 39.
What was Hogan like as a teenager?
He was smaller than the other kids and had to defend himself. That, plus his father’s suicide, hardened Hogan and made him determined to succeed.
You and Ben had another playoff 15 years later, at the 1942 Masters. What was the mood?
I was nervous. I don’t know why because I wasn’t afraid of my game, but I was very tense on the first tee. I hit a high push to the right and made 6. After 5, he’s leading by three shots, but I was not disheartened. The 6th hole is a par 3, downhill, and when I walked to the tee, why, I felt very comfortable because it was about a 6-iron shot then. Back in those days they called me Spade Nelson—a spade was a 6-iron. Ben hit his ball just off the green to the left and had a tough up-and-down. I thought, “If I can get this one close and make two, I can catch a couple of shots back.” I hit my tee shot to seven or eight feet. Ben made 4 and I made 2, and that started the string. From 6 through 13, I played 6-under-par. In the end I shot 69 to Ben’s 70.
It was a great compliment to you and Hogan that Tommy Armour and other players stayed to watch the playoff.
Now, I didn’t gamble, but Tommy Armour was a good irons player and he thought I was a good irons player, so he made a sizeable bet on me. After the 5th hole the man he’d bet with offered to let Tommy settle at 50 cents on the dollar. But Tommy said no: “The game is just now starting.”
You turned pro in 1932, as players turned from hickory shafts to steel. What was the critical swing change players had to make when hickory gave way to steel?
When steel shafts first came out, many people said they would never catch on. But I liked them right away. With hickory you used a very strong left hand, left arm and left side. The clubface would open and you had to close it up. With steel, you didn’t have to open and close the face. You could use a more neutral grip with steel. I got a good body turn and came all the way through with the left side leading. You control the club with the left side and the right side catches up at the proper time.
Was the change from hickory to steel the biggest change in golf equipment?
No. Reducing the weight of the shafts was bigger. When I played, the shafts were heavy. Now, with lighter shafts, you can gather more clubhead speed. That’s what makes the ball go a long way.
How much has the swing changed in the 70 years since you became the father of the modern swing?
Very little. The swing is fuller now with lots of extension, lots of time to build clubhead speed. I had a
three-quarter swing and used a lot of foot and leg action, which I learned to do on my own because nobody
did that with hickory shafts. When Davis Love III came out to the Tour, his backswing was 17 inches longer than mine. It’s the same with
Tiger. But there is a reason I still get credit for the modern swing. It’s because I was the first player
to use the lower body. You couldn’t use your lower body with hickory; you had to hit against a firm left
side. Sarazen said I’d never make it because I had too much lower-body action.
Of the great early triumvirate of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, Sarazen gets the least
attention. I played Gene twice in the PGA Championship when he was still playing great: once in 1941 and once in
1945. I beat him twice. Gene’s swing didn’t have any false motions. He just turned and came back and hit
the ball, setting the club to exactly the same position. For years, Snead and Gene and I played nine holes
at The Masters. Then we got too old and started just hitting balls off the first tee.
Sarazen also made the change from hickory to steel and continued winning majors.
Great players like Jones, Sarazen, Hagen and Chick Evans—Evans won the 1916 U.S. Open with seven
clubs—could have been champions in any era. When Bobby Jones designed steel-shafted clubs for Spalding in
1931, the players all switched and played well. The key change was in the takeaway. With hickory you had
to open and close the face. With steel, you just took it straight away and straight back through, which
was fairly easy to do.
You saw Sarazen’s final-round double eagle at the 1935 Masters, perhaps the most famous shot in golf history.
By accident. On the 17th hole I drove to the right. The 15th and 17th are parallel. I had to wait to play my shot until Gene’s gallery got out of the way. So I stood right there. I saw it go in the hole. So did Bobby Jones, who was standing behind the 15th green at the same moment, with but two dozen other people. Jones was the greatest. He was an amateur, a businessman, a great attorney, and he played golf differently than I ever felt I could play. He was free and easy and had a great, long rhythm and moved a lot through the ball. I never did play like that. When I was invited to Augusta in 1935 and met him, I was impressed with his manner and the authority with which he spoke of the game. After 1930 the only place he ever really played was Augusta, and I played with him a few times there and became very close to him. He had such great command of the English language. That was remarkable to me because I just talk Texas talk. I don’t think there is anybody I admired more than Bob Jones.