SMITH COLUMN: Byron Nelson was a great champion

Published 10:30 am Friday, May 21, 2021

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This past weekend, the AT&T Byron Nelson Championship brought about something of a distraction in a community that is overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of Dallas Cowboys and the influx of people seeking to settle where the economy has been the most vibrant of any big city in the country the last couple of decades.

For years, this event was popular with the tour players because of the iconic Nelson whom they respected without reservation. If he called and asked a player to sign up for this tournament, it was next to impossible to turn the legendary champion down.

Nelson, one of the most gifted professionals in the game, lived on a modest ranch 21.6 miles from the Four Seasons Resort at Las Colinas, which hosted the tournament for three decades. His statue remains on the grounds of the resort in multiple places.

(A photo of Georgia’s Brendon Todd is included in the gallery of past Nelson winners. Todd won the tournament in 2014).

At the exercise club, there is a gallery of photos and artifacts, outside the pro shop, that memorializes the gentleman champion who won 52 times on the pro tour in its hardscrabble days. That included five major championships. Nelson never competed in the British Open, retiring from the tour in 1946 at the age of 34. By that time, he had achieved his objective of having earned enough money to buy a 630-acre ranch in Roanoke, which brings about this question: How much greater might his record have been, had he remained on tour for another ten years, which likely would have been prime years for him?

Nonetheless, Nelson ranks as the one of the greatest of all times, the  highlight being the season of 1945 when he won 18 tournaments, with  eleven of them consecutive. No player before or since had a year like that.

With a humble, rural background, his view of life can be found on a placard in one of the displays which features photos and memorabilia from his career: “In 1945 when I started playing well and winning money, I started thinking, ‘I can get enough money to buy a ranch.’ Then I said to myself, ‘Boy another cow, another acre, another down payment.”   

There are other preachments from Lord Byron, as he was known, which reflect that he never lost his modest ways, he never became the victim of avarice or greed. 

“I think the only reason I have a good reputation is I’ve tried to do what the Bible says. I’ve been considered a role model for a long time. I wouldn’t do anything, and there is not enough money in the world, to cause me to break that down now.”

His swing was considered near perfect to the extent that the United States Golf Association in 1972 purchased an “electro-mechanical” machine to use to test golf clubs and golf balls “for the conformity of standards.” The machine was modeled after Nelson’s swing and was known as “Iron Byron.”

The Four Season’s museum of Nelson’s career, showcases an interesting quote about the golf swing from Nelson which reflects the professionalism of the sport in his time: “What I was trying to do,” Nelson said, “was to find a better way to swing so I could make a living at the game. I found a better way and, as a result, I’ve been credited by most experts with developing the modern way to play golf.”

I recorded a conversation with Nelson at the U. S. Open at Inverness in 1979 in which he explained that he worked hard at developing a “repeatable swing.” With consistency, he knew he could make a living at golf, which was the objective. In his era, not only was there less money to play for, there was not that much money spread around. 

Sometimes, only the top dozen or so players actually cashed a check when a tournament was over. Finishing “in the money” was the objective of the tour players. With that “repeatable swing,” Nelson became one of the biggest money winners of his time.

The record-breaking year of 1945 when he won 18 of 30 tournaments in which he played, was something Nelson said he never “thought could happen.” He said years later, “I look back on it now, and if I didn’t see so many facts and figures, I’d almost think it was a good, long dream.” South Korea’s K. H. Lee took home $1,458,000 for winning the AT&T Byron Nelson on Sunday. Last place paid “$16,362. Those would have been a mind blowing number in Nelson’s hey day.