Lord Byron's legacy still lives on
Peggy Nelson invites PGA Tour pros to get closer look at golf legend's life and career
ROANOKE, Texas -- Even in the midst of putting together the greatest streak in golf history -- a record 11 consecutive tournament wins in 1945 that will likely never be duplicated -- Byron Nelson was dreaming of his ranch in Texas.
Nelson played as much as he could with the singular goal of saving enough money so that he and his first wife, Louise, could finally purchase enough land to raise cattle and chickens and still have a comfortable home with a nice view.
Early in 1946, the Nelsons found 630 acres in Roanoke, just over 20 miles north of Fort Worth. According to Nelson's autobiography, Louise insisted they not dip into their investment savings, so they decided to save up and make the purchase in cash. Nelson knew he needed to play well the rest of the year to make up the difference needed to buy the place for $55,000. They bought the ranch that summer and moved in Aug. 26, taking two carloads worth of stuff from their home in Denton to the ranch.
That ranch is where Nelson spent the rest of his life. It's not quite as secluded anymore. You can see Texas Motor Speedway as you turn down Nelson's street, fittingly named Eleven Straight Lane by Nelson's wife Peggy about eight years ago. It's a total now of 551 acres, including an 82-acre homestead.
"We hear the hum during races, but it's not bad and traffic is much better now than it was when it opened," said Peggy Nelson, who remembers heading to church Sunday morning in 1997 with Byron and ending up in a racetrack parking lot trying to get out. "All of the trees and area around here still make this a wonderful spot."
It's a spot that the golfers competing in this weekend's HP Byron Nelson Championship can see for themselves Saturday late afternoon and evening. Peggy Nelson has invited the competitors and their families to the ranch for a chance to fish, eat and take a look around.
What they'll see is a working ranch. Peggy helps with the chickens herself, and the Nelsons sold four acres of property years ago to Marcia and Eddie Baggs, who live there and help run the ranch.
To walk around the large area, which includes a tunnel under the road nearby, a man-made lake for fishing and several cabins for guests, is to get a glimpse into Nelson's career on the course and the kind of person he was off it.
"It's a great opportunity for people to come out and see where Byron has spent 60 years," Peggy Nelson said. "Sixty years in one place is pretty amazing."
This week is a reminder that Nelson's legacy lives on. He was proud of the fact that he was the first PGA Tour golfer to have a tournament named in his honor, but more proud of the money The Salesmanship Club of Dallas, which puts on the event, raised for charity. And he was sure happy to own that ranch.
A look at some of what the pros will get to experience there Saturday:
If you're looking for a golf museum, you'll find a small one at the ranch. Many of Nelson's things are on display either at TPC Four Seasons Resort & Club or in other spots. But there are some very interesting items that are still on the walls. Some of those include:
• A replica of the plaque that sat at Augusta National Golf Club when the Nelson Bridge was dedicated on April 2, 1958. The bridge leads golfers to the 13th tee box and commemorates Nelson's comeback effort in the 1937 Masters, his favorite tournament.
Nelson was behind Ralph Guldahl by three strokes heading to the back nine. Things turned around at Amen Corner. Guldahl hit his tee shot on the par-3 12th into Rae's Creek and made a double-bogey. Nelson, in his book, said he felt like "a light bulb went off" in his head and figured a birdie might give him the momentum he needed to win the tournament. He hit his shot to six feet and made 2. He saw that Guldahl also bogeyed the 13th and thought about playing it safe and laying up.
"That would put me in the lead by one shot, but I knew that was enough," Nelson wrote in his autobiography. "I said to myself: 'The Lord hates a coward.'
His 3-wood was just short of the green and he chipped in from about 20 feet for eagle, going on to win the tournament.
That was also the tournament where Nelson got the nickname "Lord Byron."
• The most noticeable item in the den hangs above the mantel. It's a large needlepoint of the scorecard from Nelson's 1937 Masters. Joan and Jake Keever, friends of Nelson's, played golf with Byron many times and, during one round, Nelson decided he was tired of seeing Joan struggle in the bunker.
"After the round was over, he told her, 'You're going to go in this bunker and you're not coming out until you're doing what I tell you to do,'" Peggy Nelson said. "Byron worked with her for 45 minutes, but she got it. The next year, she won the ladies championship at her club. To thank Byron, she did the needlepoint. It was one of Byron's favorite things."
Peggy said it took four months and 377,000 stitches to do it.
• Trophies, including two from Nelson's amateur days, are in various spots in the house. His trophy for winning the Rivercrest CC tournament in 1932 in June is believed to be his final amateur trophy before he turned professional in November of that year. He also has the Gunter Hotel Trophy for a runner-up showing in the Texas Open in 1932.
• When Nelson turned 80, the USGA gave him a replica of the U.S. Open trophy with the names of all the champions to that point.
• Standing in the center of the large bookshelf at the end of the den is Nelson's Congressional Gold Medal for humanitarian service. The medal was presented to Peggy Nelson on June 26, 2007.
• A photo of Bob Jones, Ben Hogan, Jimmy Demaret and Nelson taken at the 1942 Masters.
"He looks like he's in an unusual stance because he was eating something and was hiding it behind Hogan's head," Peggy said. "Byron never liked to get his picture taken while he was eating."
• A picture of Nelson helping to mold the redesigned eighth hole at Augusta National in the late 1970s. Joe Finger, who helped Nelson with the work, wrote: "Your stance is a little wide and your right hand is in a weak position, but the address is perfect for rebuilding the eighth green at the Augusta National. Thanks for everything."
Before longtime tournament chairman Clifford Roberts died, he had taken the mounds around the green out so spectators could see the hole better. But Nelson said in his book that it ruined the hole, and Roberts knew it and wanted it restored. The problem was there were no pictures of that original green. Nelson had played the course so much and was certain he knew the green that he was given the job. Near the completion of the project, someone found an old photo of that green. Frank Christian, whose father had taken the photo, looked at the green and then the photo and couldn't believe it. "It's exactly the same," he said, according to Nelson's biography.
• There are paintings throughout the den and house that were done by Peggy, who takes an art class once a week. Interestingly, she did only one portrait of Nelson, working from a photo. "I tried to do him often, but could never get it just right," Peggy said. The one she did do she planned to give him for their 25th anniversary, but Nelson died before that.
• A silver box sits just outside the den and has an inscription of Nelson's Masters wins (1937, 1942). It was a box that the club gave to the champions starting in 1960, but they didn't make it retroactive.
"Byron used to tell me he'd love to have one," Peggy said. "I thought maybe I could pay for it, so I asked them to make me one and surprised him with it. The signatures of the champions up to that point are on it. He was so tickled to get it."
Now, the champions get a small model of the clubhouse, and when Jack Stephens was chairman, he sent Byron one. It's at The Sports Club in Las Colinas.
If you walk through the house, you're likely to find at least two pieces of furniture made by Byron. He loved woodworking after he retired and would buy kits to put pieces together and then created pieces on his own.
"He loved woodworking and he wanted to do things that could be used," Peggy Nelson said. "The first things he ever made were luggage racks. He didn't just make things to make them."
One of the early things Nelson made was a bookshelf that he ordered from a magazine, which included instructions. He was so pleased with the result and how well the instructions were laid out that he wrote the company a note.
"He didn't have to go buy more lumber and never made a mistake," Peggy said. "I took a picture of him with it out in the shop. They sent a nice letter back, but didn't indicate that they knew he was anything other than a pleased customer. But somebody figured it out and asked to send a photographer and did a story on Byron."
Nelson used his skill to give back, making furniture for friends and coming up with something small for Christmas gifts.
"He started about the time he stopped working for ABC and worked in the garage," Peggy Nelson said. "He did it in the garage and then they converted what was one of the chicken houses. They made it into a workshop."
Giving back ... and not even knowing it
There are two pictures of some young girls with no relation to the Nelsons sitting on a table in one of the hallways of the home. Years ago, Nelson did an interview for one of the golf magazines and was asked his biggest regret. He said it was that he didn't adopt children with Louise.
"He talked about how he could have helped some children and given them a good life and Louise would have been happy and how he wished he could do that over," Peggy said. "This guy wrote: 'Mr. Nelson, your words turned me around.' We've since gone to Russia and adopted two girls (Maria and Nadia), and it never would have happened [if not] for what you said."
That man was Matt Richardson, and the Nelsons invited him and the family to the ranch.
"He brought his father's copy of Byron's book, "Winning Golf," and signed it to Byron and thanked him for helping him get his family," Peggy said. "It was very nice."
The huge property includes several guest houses, including one right across the street from where Peggy now lives. That house is used for folks returning from mission trips through the church the Nelsons attended, Richland Hills Church of Christ.
There's also plenty of barn space and an area for the chickens. Drive around the property and you'll see steer and plenty of equipment used for upkeep. And if you go through the tunnel under one of the main roads near the house, you'll end up at the cabin near the lake. It's a small cabin but is situated in a nice spot right by the lake. There's also a small boat.
"There are fish in here and they'll be plenty of fish for the guys and kids to catch during the tournament," Peggy Nelson said. "I think they'll enjoy it."
Richard Durrett covers golf for ESPNDallas.com.