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.
The three great golf course designers of the classic age were Alister Mackenzie, Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast. Tillinghast designed Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, Baltusrol and his favorite, Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey, where you were the assistant pro in the mid-1930s.
Tillinghast wore a loose tweed coat. When he played, I mean—I never saw him hit a shot without that tweed coat on. He had a waxed moustache. A very well-ordered man who could look at a piece of property and see exactly what he wanted to do with it. Talk to him about a golf course, and there was no argument. He would say, "We're going to put a bunker here," and that's what happened.
Ridgewood was the perfect place to prepare for the big leagues.
They had three great nines—East, West and Center. I made $400 a summer as the assistant pro. I learned to run a pro shop and how to run tournaments. In 1935, the Ryder Cup came to Ridgewood. Here are these great players, and they got fine slacks and shoes and they had parties to go to and I said, "Boy, I'm going to get on that Ryder Cup team one of these days."
I made it in '37. It was a fortunate start for my career—I was stepping up.
Leading the General Brock Open by five shots in 1935, you had to wait for Walter Hagen before you could begin your final round.
Oh, fun. I only waited an hour and a half on the first tee. The officials said I could go ahead and play and I said, "No, I'll wait for Hagen." I hadn't led a lot of tournaments. The officials said, "We'll send you out with a marker if you want to go." I said no. So finally he comes. He drove up in a nice, big car. Hagen was dressed in beautiful clothes. He never said anything about it, never apologized for being late. He was cordial, but he played strictly to the gallery. He was there for them, not for me. I was so nervous playing with him, even leading by 5, that I shot a nice fat 42 on the first nine. At least I settled down enough to shoot 35 on the back nine and finish second to Tony Manero. I won $600.
That was a lot of money at the time.
I got all fives and ones. A big stack of money. My wife Louise and I hid that money all over our car. We were afraid we'd get robbed. I had never seen that much money.
How did you prepare for tournaments in those days?
I never changed any part of my swing after 1936. If I practiced a lot, it bothered my concentration because I'd start experimenting. So I would just play the golf course. If I didn't know the course, I'd play it once to become acquainted with it. In those days we didn't do all the exercises the boys do now. Nobody exercised or stretched at all. I never heard of anybody exercising other than just playing golf.
What do you think was the weakest part of your game?
I didn't putt badly except in one area—12 to 15 feet. That's called the scoring area. You need to make a lot of those, and I didn't. I didn't three-putt often and was a good lag putter, a good short putter, but I didn't make as many of those 12- to 15-footers as I should have.
Who's the best from that distance?
Tiger's the best I ever saw. It's better than even money that he'll make a putt from 12 to 15 feet.
Do you ever regret leaving the game in 1946, at the height of your powers?
I have never regretted it once. You have to look at things back then—I was making no money. I wanted to win every important American tournament once, so when I won the L.A. Open to start 1946, I had completed my playing goals. And I lost the desire to put forth the effort to stay there. Retiring was the best thing I ever did. If I hadn't retired from playing, I never would have done television for 17 years, or the other things I've been blessed to do.
You get upset when people say you had a nervous stomach.
That bothers me more than any other thing. The fact is, I had an upset stomach twice in all my years on tour. I've seen articles that say I had the yips, too. I never yipped a putt in my life. I was not a great putter but I was not a bad putter. I played very consistently my whole career.
I was raised in Texas and I wanted a ranch.That's what I wanted and that's what I got. But that is the one thing said about my career that bothers me—that I had a nervous stomach. My stomach had nothing in the world to do with me quitting.
Does it bother you when people say Snead and Hogan weren't there in 1945 when you won 18 times?
No, because they were there. In 1945 they played 46 tournaments between them. I had good luck against Hogan and Snead—I beat Snead for the U.S. Open in '39 and Hogan in a playoff for the '42 Masters.
In what order do you rank Jones's Grand Slam year of 1930, your 11-in-a-row and 18-win season of 1945, Hogan's three majors in 1953, and Tiger's three majors in 2000?
I rank them in the order you just stated them.
Tell me more about the money you couldn't make in your heyday.
I won the 1936 Metropolitan Open, my first important tournament, with $5 in my pocket. From '36 to '42 I won 19 times including four majors, and my entire winnings were $25,495. That's about $4,000 a year. So I made my expenses. My career winnings were $182,000. In 1939, Cliff Roberts, who ran The Masters, told me, "Byron, you're going to have to care for your money because you'll never make enough playing golf."
Does it bother you not to have won the British Open?
No. In 1955, long after I retired, my friend Eddie Lowery—he was Francis Ouimet's 10-year-old caddie in the 1913 U.S. Open—had gotten married and wanted to have his honeymoon at St. Andrews during the British Open. He offered to pay our expenses if my wife and I would join them. I had never seen St. Andrews, so we went and I qualified for the Open easily. Eddie didn't qualify. In the tournament, I played as well as I could tee to green, but I averaged 37 putts a round and finished 12th. It had rained early in the week, then it got real hot and the greens got real slow. I could not make the adjustment.
Unbeknownst to me, Eddie then entered us in the French Open. When we told our wives, they just about divorced us.
When I registered at the French Federation of Golf, it was at 1 Byron Street. I said, "Oh!" And I played just like I'd played in Scotland, but I made adjustments and won. It was the last tournament I ever played. The irons I used are still there on the clubhouse wall.