Nelson's legacy stretches far and wide

Updated: September 28, 2006, 12:27 PM ET
By Tim Rosaforte | GolfDigest.com

My last conversation with Byron Nelson was in August, just before the PGA Championship, just after Tiger Woods won the Buick Open for his 50th professional win. Byron was in the woodshop of his home in Roanoke, Texas, when I called, carving and whittling with those hands that won 11 straight tournaments in 1945.

Peggy, his wife, said to call after lunch, and at the appointed time, Lord Byron came to the phone, his voice as clear as ever. I loved listening to Byron Nelson. I loved his voice because it sounded the same as the days when I listened to him do the ABC broadcasts. But the reason I called Byron is because the man's observations always carried so much insight and respect. Byron wasn't just good at talking about yesterday. He was in touch with today. Among golf journalists, he was a go-to guy.

I was on a plane, flying home from the Ryder Cup, when through the wonders of satellite TV I learned that Byron had passed on Tuesday. To me, the only shock is that Byron was one of those characters who seemed like he'd live forever. I tried to remember our last words, whether they were prophetic or just small talk at the end of an interview. I called up the notes the next morning and was reminded that we were talking about longevity, not only as it relates to a golf career, and how that's what separates Woods now from Jack Nicklaus, but also about life, living into your 90s, happily, as Byron did with Peggy on the ranch in Texas. I'm reminded now that he talked about stress, and what a killer that is. He also noted that he never drank or smoked, and I remember him talking about going to church every day.

The man was a saint, certainly to the game of golf, not just for the records he set but also for the life he led. When he died, it was like a head of state died. I won't use Golfing God to describe him, because that would be sacrilegious to what Byron believed in. He never preached. He just did what was right and the flocks followed him to the TPC-Las Colinas, where his fields were always A-list, not because it was Dallas or because the Salesmanship Club did such a great job of hosting, but because it was Byron's tournament. It wasn't the Verizon or the EDS. It was The Nelson.

Byron was the first member of the 50-win club, back when nobody recognized it. That milestone came at the Columbus Open, but he didn't remember much about it. It was 60 years ago, after all. "Nothing was said about it at all, nothing," he said. But just by saying it today, we were giving a little glory to what Byron Nelson did in his day.

Longevity would not be the word used to describe Byron Nelson's career. He checked out at age 34, after accomplishing all there was to accomplish in what must have been a grueling life, commuting to tournaments by car or train, when the golf professional was still being treated as a second-class citizen. He was the last living member of a big three that included Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.

Nelson's lasting legend, though, is more as a person than a golfer, all the good he did for people, the kind way he did it, always with this wonderful touch. The way he learned to become friends with Tiger Woods is a good example. As Tiger goes for his sixth straight stroke-play victory this week at the WGC-American Express Championships, it reminds us of what an unbelievable accomplishment it was to win 11 straight. It doesn't matter if the fields weren't as strong; he still had a pencil and scorecard in his pocket for every one of his rounds, he had to close each and every one of them, and then barnstorm to the next town.

His passing also brings me back to the summer of 2000, when Tiger was in the middle of his greatest season ever, and I needed a foreword for "Raising The Bar." These are his words. They are as fresh and illuminating today, as Byron is laid to rest, as they were six years ago.

"Sept. 18, 2000:

"The first time I saw Tiger Woods, I was at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles where Eddie Merrins is pro. Peggy and I were there for a Friends of Golf Pro-Am honoring Jack Nicklaus in 1991. Eddie told me that Tiger was there. I had been reading about him, so Eddie gave us a cart, and we watched him play 14 holes. I was very much impressed with his swing, how well he hit the ball and how far he hit it. Even then he hit the ball a long way, even for a 15-year-old.

"I saw Tiger play every year from then on until now, either in the juniors, as an amateur, or a pro. He won a junior tournament here at the TPC at Los Colinas in Irving, Texas, the AJGA Junior Championship. I went out to see him and told him, 'I'm glad to watch you play. I enjoyed watching you at Bel-Air.' In 1993, I wrote him a personal letter, inviting him to play in the GTE Byron Nelson Classic. He accepted, and I've been in touch with him ever since.

"As a golfer, he has tremendous ability, and the great thing is, he is still learning. I admire him in a number of ways. One of the main things is, as well as he's been playing, he realizes to himself that he can play better. It's a trait all the great champions have.

"Everybody talks about the way he hits the ball, but what impresses me even more is his ability as a putter. I think he reads a green better than anybody I've seen in 75 years of golf. He very seldom misses the line, and he's even-money to make it from 15 feet in. Even a 30-40 foot putt; the feel he has is incredible. He has been as much as 157 holes without three-putting.

"Could he become the greatest golfer who ever lived? At this stage of his life, I'd say he has the potential to, absolutely. You can never tell how well he is going to be able to perform the way he performs [and] for how long. The good Lord only knows that. He could hurt a wrist or a back, any golfer could. For instance, what David Duval is going through right now. It could happen to him. But as far as his ability and desire and wanting to be the best player in the world: He doesn't just want to do it. He works at it.

"The game is just so much different now than it was when I played. When I won 11 straight tournaments in 1945, I had one little bitsy endorsement, that was with Wheaties. There was no television and you had to go downtown to go on radio. You just can't believe how golf has grown. The best way I can explain it was last year, 1999, when Loren Roberts won our event, he said he never thought he'd made $540,000 from one tournament in life. I told him, 'That's a lot of money, let me explain how much.' In 1945 there were 32 tournaments. I played 30, total prize money was $520,000. That's how much it's grown, from the publicity on television, with President Eisenhower and Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman, and now Tiger Woods. Every era has had one fine golfer. This era it's Tiger.

"We were linked together earlier this year when he won his fifth and sixth straight PGA Tour events. I wrote him a note about it. I said, 'Tiger, I love watching you play on the TV, it's a lot of fun to see. If you do break my record, I'll be the first one to congratulate you. I had that record for 55 years. If you go ahead and break it, Merry Christmas.'

"The unfortunate thing about this position, he doesn't have a life of his own. When I won the 11 in a row, nobody paid attention to me. I'm sure he can't go out to a restaurant and eat. That's difficult. But he is living with it wonderfully well. And he's improving himself all the time, I admire that. It must be tough. It must be difficult to live with. As long as he keeps the desire he has, he'll be fine. We had to play on our own. Now he can call his teacher, and Butch Harmon can come in to check him out. We didn't have that in our time. None.

"People ask me if Tiger could win the Grand Slam. If anybody could, he could. But it will be very difficult even for him. You're playing against the best players in the world in the majors and you have to be peaking at the right time, four times a year. So many other things enter into it. You can get a bad starting time, get caught in the wind. There are so many things that come into it other than an ability to play golf. I think it's remarkable that he won three.

"I have a lot of fun watching him play. Everywhere I go I answer more questions about Tiger than myself or the rest of the players combined. Whether it's Home Depot or the people at church, people ask me, 'What's Tiger going to do today? Do you think Tiger going to win today?' It's amazing. People who have never played golf or viewed golf before ask me about Tiger.

"I think the world of the young man. I just think he's great for the game."

-- Byron Nelson

That last sentence? Lord Byron could have been talking about himself.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.