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.
What's your reaction to Tiger's getting close to your magnificent record of 113 straight times in the money?
We didn't really have cuts in my day—only 15 or 20 places got paid. Tenth place would pay $180. You needed that to make your expenses. That's why it doesn't make sense to compare the two records. I think Tiger will make the cut as long as he keeps playing. But I was in the money 113 times in a row, and that proved more about my game than any other thing.
Can you think of another great player who's fought his swing as much as Tiger has?
I hadn't thought about that. But no—not the caliber player he is. When Bobby Jones loosened his grip at the top of his swing, his long-iron play suffered, but he was still the best of his time. Tiger's swing is still good, but I think that subconsciously he's thinking about hitting the ball hard.
What do you see when you watch him swing?
It appears that in some way he loses the club. Tiger will finish with the club in one hand, or the club will almost fly out of his hands. That's so strange to me—I never lost a club in my life. But I still love to watch him play. I'm very fond of him; he and I are good friends.
His swing looks different from the one he had in 2000.
You are right. It doesn't look as coordinated, as tied together. He doesn't know if it's going right or left. If you know you're going to miss one way, you can play. But when you're on the tee worrying about hitting it left or right, you have a problem.
Will he pass Jack's record of 18 professional majors?
He has 11 more to beat the record—that's a whole lot. Because of Tiger there are young players coming out now who are 20 or 21, and they started working on their games at 15 and 16. They're seasoned. Tiger's responsible for that. And he's not as proud of it as he should be. He does a lot for juniors, for golf and for other golfers.
Was Shell's Wonderful World of Golf underrated for its effects on the game?
Oh, yes. They used to start with a 20-minute travelogue of each city it was played in and then they showed the golf. Boy, people loved it. Golf got a wonderful boost from Wonderful World of Golf. They only stopped when they weren't selling as much gasoline.
How long did it take to shoot the first Wonderful World of Golf at Pine Valley in 1962?
It was the longest two days in golf. Ever. We'd start as soon as the sky lighted up and they filmed from the top of a station wagon. They worked as fast as they could, but we only got in 10 holes the first day. And I was a quick player. You'd stop and they'd get you lined up for this or that. Then I'd start to play and they'd say, "Cut, cut, cut!" Or the cameraman would run out of film. They never used that cameraman again.
Tom Watson looks like he's making the same swing he did 25 years ago.
Three reasons. One, he takes great care of himself—he's in great shape. Two is desire. Three is that he's playing for his caddie, Bruce Edwards, who has Lou Gehrig's disease. Tom is trying to make people conscious of the disease.
Name a great swinger of the club who doesn't get enough credit.
Jack Grout had a great swing. He's the man who taught Jack Nicklaus how to play. He was the assistant pro at Glen Garden. Every Monday they had a pro-am; I was his partner and we won it every week. When my first wife, Louise, and I traveled the tour by car, we took Jack Grout along in our Ford roadster on a trip from Texas to California. His clubs fit into the little space behind our seats. Each time we stopped, his clubs would bump us. Finally, Louise said, "Either Jack goes or I go." I told her, "Jack's going."
Who are the three best clutch putters of all time?
Bobby Jones, Nicklaus and Tiger. Twelve years after Jones retired, Hogan and Henry Picard challenged the two of us to a match. They birdied 7 through 13 at Augusta National and never won a hole. Jones was very long and had great rhythm—he shot 32 on the back nine. He loved to play and always played well from tee to green, but didn't putt as well after he stopped playing competitively. But he got charged up that day—the old firehorse, he got going.
When we started The Masters Champions Dinner in 1952, the players were critical of some of the holes. They would say, "We can't get to the back pin on number 5." Jones would say, "You're supposed to run the ball back." You could hear the ball land on the greens in those days, they were so firm. The players also complained about the front-left pin on number 3. Jones told them to hit a pitch with no spin to the front-right portion of the green—the ball could then roll left toward the hole so you could have a birdie putt.
What did he say about trying to stop a ball on the 7th green?
He didn't have an answer for that one except, "You're not supposed to birdie every hole."
Weren't you nervous about hitting 3-wood to the 13th green in the final round when you first won The Masters in 1937?
The Lord hates cowards. In those days, if you weren't careful you could hit a pitch into the swale of the 13th green and have it go right into the water. I hit 3-wood to 15 or 18 feet and chipped in for 3. So I started that final nine birdie, par, birdie, eagle.
Would you say that first Masters was the most important championship you ever won?
Yes. I was 25, the youngest man who ever won The Masters. I played such a fine round the first round—shot 66—and then faltered some. Then I played a great last nine to come back and win. That made me realize I had the ability to play well under stress. It did more for me than any other tournament.
Your second wife, Peggy, told me that you had the bluest eyes she'd ever seen.
I'm a very lucky man. Peggy does everything for me. She treats me like a king of kings. If it weren't for Peggy, I wouldn't be here. My mother liked her, too. She told Peggy, "You're pretty. I like you."
Does it scare you to be the last man of your generation standing?
I think about it, but it doesn't scare me.
Do you think there's golf in heaven?
What kind of course do you suppose they have?
Well, knowing the good Lord as I do and trusting him like I do, I think we are going to like it.
To what do you owe your longevity?
My mother lived to be 98. Her father lived to 94. Her mother's father was riding a horse to visit one of his neighbors and fell off dead when he was 97.
I never drank. I never smoked. I was 179 pounds when I left the tour in 1946, and I weigh 180 today. I get plenty of rest. I exercise. I've been active since I was born. I have only had real stress once in my life.
Being stressed about tournaments doesn't hurt you. But when my first wife, Louise, who I was crazy about, became completely paralyzed except for her left hand for two years and seven months—that was stress. Because I lived with her and took care of her. That's stress.
The life I have lived is a blessing. I have enjoyed it. I'm a church man, and I want to get to heaven. It's going to be something. I have a feeling we don't know how good it's going to be.