Lord Byron remembered for gentle spirit

Byron Nelson, who had the greatest year in the history of professional golf when he won 18 tournaments in 1945 died on Tuesday. He was 94

Updated: February 25, 2007 11:37 IST
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Chandler's Cross:Jim Furyk has the reputation of being a rock, so it was strange to see his eyes suddenly glass over with tears and his answers become short and direct. All because he was asked about Byron Nelson. Furyk rarely skips the Byron Nelson Championship, and even though he missed the cut this year, it might have been his favorite. He and Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman had dinner with "Lord Byron'' at his ranch in Roanoke, Texas, where they shared stories and marveled at the memory of a 94-year-old man whose career spanned hickory shafts to titanium heads. "He's so special because he went out of his way to do the very most he could to help other people,'' Furyk said. "That's why we should all learn so much from him. He'd be a really tough role model to follow because he was so wonderful.'' Valuable gifts Nelson died on Tuesday of natural causes. His wife, Peggy, went to Bible study in the morning, and she returned to find him on the back porch facing the woodworking shop, where he spent hours crafting everything from clocks to cabinets. A few months ago, Nelson made 12 slivers of wood, smooth and stained, for the US Ryder Cup team. His signature stamp – "Made by Byron Nelson'' - was branded in black on one side, and on the other side was the player's first name and Psalms 18:29: "With your help I can advance against a troop. With my God I can scale a wall.'' JJ Henry reached into his golf bag and held the keepsake, the least expensive gift amid the extravagance of the Ryder Cup, and perhaps the most valuable considering who made it. "No question, it will be in my bag this week,'' Henry said. "Byron was everything golf stands for.'' Ted Purdy won Nelson's tournament last year for his first US PGA Tour victory, and when he returned for a charity meeting later that year, he began asking where he could buy some of the woodwork Nelson made. Peggy Nelson told him it was only a hobby and nothing was for sale. A few months later, Purdy received in the mail a wooden clock. "Made by Byron Nelson.'' "He put it on the bottom of the clock,'' Purdy said. "I wish he had just stamped it right on the face.'' Nelson was known as a gentle spirit with a pure swing. He won all three of the US majors, and took his place in golf history - probably forever - by winning 11 straight tournaments in 1945, the year he won 18 times. Even more astounding was that he retired at age 34 when he had enough money to buy his ranch. "If he had kept playing like guys do now, more than likely he would have won more tournaments than anyone,'' Tiger Woods said. Great legacy Nelson was unlike any other. His legacy stretches beyond trophies to the way he lived his life. His gentle style and courtly manner reached one generation after another, and stood as an example for them to follow. "I'm not sure I've ever met a person like him,'' Scott Verplank said. "If he never did anything in golf, he'd be loved universally.'' Verplank was among those fortunate to know him well, and how they met speaks to how much Nelson cared for others, and how he never thought of himself as larger than the game. Verplank grew up in Dallas and was one of the best players in the junior circuits. He was 17 when Nelson called him for the first time, telling him that he had been seeing his name in the newspaper that he must be playing very well. "Would you like me to come watch you hit balls?'' Nelson asked. Once his heart started beating again, Verplank accepted. They met at Preston Trail in Dallas, an exclusive club restricted to men 21 and older, and Verplank found himself on the range with one of golf's greatest players. "The head pro walks over, and he knew who I was,'' Verplank recalled on Wednesday. "So he says, 'How old are you, Scott?' And I told him I was 17. He says, 'Byron, he can't be out here.' Byron had no idea, but I mean, c'mon. This is Byron Nelson! We just got in the car and drove over to Northwood.'' Verplank says he played six times with Nelson during the 1980s. Just as meaningful were the letters he wrote, about a dozen a year, either congratulating him for his success or encouraging him when he was struggling. "He set records that are pretty much untouchable, and that's rare in any sport,'' said Verplank, wearing a cap that had "BN'' written on the side in black ink. "But I'll remember him for who he was. He was the ultimate gentleman. He was nice to every person he was around.'' Right advice Nelson met another junior prodigy at a clinic in Los Angeles, where Jack Nicklaus was the main event. The warm-up act was 16-year-old Tiger Woods. "I had to leave and play a nine-hole high school match,'' Woods said. "Mr Nelson stopped by and said he wanted to say a couple of things to me. And 20 minutes later, I didn't say a word. He was doing all the talking.'' Nelson asked Woods about his plans, and told him he was on the right track. The next year, he offered Woods a sponsor's exemption to play in the Byron Nelson Classic. Nelson wrote with his own aging hands letters to players, sometimes inviting them to his tournament. Ernie Els showed up one year and took part in a clinic with DA Weibring as Nelson looked on. "He said to me, 'I think you're going to win.' I'm sure he said that to a lot of guys,'' Els said on Wednesday. "So I said, 'Why is that?' He said, 'Your club head is in perfect position, and you're swinging with ease.' And I won. He has always been a great person, and his memory is unbelievable. He just had a great way about him.'' The last shot Nelson hit before an audience was the ceremonial drive to start the 2001 Masters. He was 89, just as nervous as when he won his first major championship at Augusta National in 1937. "OK, little ball,'' he said quietly. "One more time.'' He didn't split the middle, but no one cared. The ovation sounded like it belonged on the Sunday back nine. (AP)

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