Verplank's Nelson win has extra meaning

Updated: April 29, 2007, 8:24 PM ET
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

We could write about how winning the Byron Nelson Championship in the first year after the passing of "Mr. Nelson," as all the players refer to him, means more to Scott Verplank than it would have for any other player in the field. We could tell you all about Verplank's history at the tournament, the friendship and respect he developed for Nelson, the numerous close calls he has had at Las Colinas in recent years.

But we couldn't tell the story as well as Scott Verplank told it himself, through this conglomeration of quotes during the week:

"I was a little kid, you know, riding out in the backseat of somebody's car going out to watch the Byron Nelson when it was at Preston Trail back in the '70s. You know, I walked around, I ran around, watching Tom Watson play. Seemed to me like he won every year at Preston Trail, and I think I was there for all of them.

Scott Verplank
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezVerplank has often called the Nelson his personal "fifth major."
"I loved watching him play. I knew that he was a close friend of Byron, and that was another reason why I always … admired Tom. I guess it's like a kid peeking through the wall of a baseball stadium and wanting to be on the Yankees one day. That's what it was like for me. I was a kid wanting to do that.

"Byron was so great to me for 26 years that I knew him. He kind of took me under his wing when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure I was 17; I think I was a senior in high school. He called me up and said, 'This is Byron Nelson,' and I can't speak. He says, 'Would you like me to watch you hit some golf balls?' I think I was just barely smart enough to say, 'Yes, please,' and the guy was great to me.

"The first time I met him and hit balls we went to Preston Trail, and we got out there on the range and the head pro came running out of the golf shop and says, 'Byron, Byron, Byron, how old is this guy?' 'He's 17.' 'Well, he can't be here. You've got to be 21 to be on the grounds out there.' He's telling Byron Nelson, 'You've got to leave,' and I'm going, 'You've got to be kidding me.'

"So we did. We left and we went over and played at Northwood. He watched me hit some balls, we played 18 holes, then he watched me hit some more.

"I probably played half a dozen rounds with him, played a couple rounds out here, played around Dallas and different places, and he told me stories about 1945 and what he was thinking and what he was doing.

"One story that I think was really great is he would go to the golf course and he won all these tournaments and shot all these low scores and he'd go to the golf tournament, come back to the hotel, and [his first wife] Louise was there and she'd say, 'How did you do?' And he'd go, 'Not that good, I shot 66.' She'd go, 'Well, that's great.' He'd go, 'No, I wish I would shoot 80 and get it over with.'

"He said the pressure that he felt was getting to be unbearable, and I just thought that was really interesting. He was telling some stories like that.

"He probably wrote me 40 notes over the last 20-25 years. Couldn't have done anything more for me. I've got them all. I've got them all saved up. I think I might try to make some sort of little collage or something. Every one of them was pretty significant to me, to be quite honest with you. He always had encouraging words at good times and bad times, and it always meant a lot. Whenever the little letters came in the mail, I knew right who they were from, and that was pretty cool.

"One of the neatest things that I ever got to do was go to his house. He showed me his workshop and where he made all the furniture and stuff, really cool stuff. Well, just mainly because he made it.

"His living room at Fairway Ranch … had a big easy chair, and the one whole wall just has all his trophies, the Masters trophy, the PGA trophy, -- I mean, it's just incredible. So you're just looking at it like a museum, looking at all the things that he did. So that's pretty neat. That was very impressive to me as a young tour pro to get to go over to his house. I can't remember which Christmas it was, but when I came back here, I talked to him during the holidays or whatever, and I'd just see him or just go to his house or chat for a while.

"Just being from Dallas and being a recipient of Byron Nelson's generosity and his greatness, honestly, this tournament has always meant a lot to me. He was so great to me as a kid and all through my career. I have the ultimate respect for him.

"God, he was one of the finest gentlemen I've ever met in my life. Because I'm from here and this tournament has his name on it, it's a pretty big deal to me.

"[The final putt on 18 in Sunday's final round was] not a very hard putt. The only thing that made it hard was it was to win and the greens were bumpy. I've never been that light-headed and nervous and shaky over a putt in my life. You know what? Ryder Cup, nothing compared to that to me. I mean, that was a lot of fun today, but … it was an out-of-body experience.

"I hit it hard enough and it went in, and at that point I just kept saying, 'Oh, my gosh.' I can't believe it. I can't believe I pulled it off.

"Byron knocked that last putt in for me. I couldn't see the hole. I couldn't see the ball. I didn't know what was happening. I saw it bounce and go right and when it went in.

"I think Byron had a hand in this week. [Nelson's widow Peggy] just told me … that he picked the winner this week. I think he might have.

"I mean, I couldn't believe that it happened. It was a dream. Incredible."

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.