Byron Nelson: His Last Interview

Byron Nelson at his Texas Ranch
Karen Kuehn
Nelson Loved nothing more than spending time at his Texas ranch.
"I don't know if you should print this," Byron Nelson said in the living room of his Roanoke, Texas, ranch one August morning. "But there's something you should know about Sam Snead." He leaned forward in his recliner. At 94, just two months before his death, Nelson was still spry ("I'm just two pounds heavier than when I quit playing!"). Poised to share this bombshell, he pursed his crinkled lips and adjusted the oxygen tubes beneath his nose. "See, Sam would tell filthy jokes about cussin' and women! Would you laugh at a joke about cussin' and women? I wouldn't." That was Nelson to the end, a straight arrow, a Boy Scout going on 95. In his final in-depth interview, the winner of 11 straight Tour events in 1945 shared some of the wisdom he gleaned over the course of his singular life. "I'm 94-and-a-half," he said, "and you could say that I've learned some things."

PRACTICE BUILDS CONFIDENCE

"In golf, practice builds confidence. It makes you fearless. When I was a pro at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey, I was coming back from the range with my 3-iron. Some of the caddies were next to the clubhouse, about 60 yards away from a flagpole. They each bet me a nickel that I couldn't drop a ball on the terrace and hit the pole. My first shot missed, but I gripped down and hit a draw and, sweet as you please, got that pole dead center! The caddies stared, their mouths open. I picked up my 55 cents, gave them a little smile and walked away."

LEARN TO GET ON WITH THINGS

"Sometimes you have to deal with what happens in life. To get on with things, no matter what. You can't feel sorry for yourself. I lived through the Depression, when you wondered where your next dollar was coming from. My mother and father had a little acre, with chickens, vegetables and eggs. I had a wagon, and I'd take the vegetables to the stores and sell them for pennies and nickels. Hey, get a nickel, and there's a loaf of bread! When my brother was born, he had health problems, and he had to have goat milk, so I would milk the goat for the milk to give my sick brother. You go through that and it builds in your background. It makes you stronger."

HAPPINESS IS WHERE YOU FIND IT

"My first wife, Louise, and I didn't have any money. We were married [in 1934] in the living room of her parents' house. I had a Ford roadster. It didn't have heat, and Louise's feet and legs would get cold, because ladies always wore dresses back then. So we'd heat bricks in an oven and wrap them in paper, and she could put her feet on them. That helped. One of the happiest moments of my life was 12 years after we were married, when we finally had the money to buy our own furniture. All that time, we'd borrowed furniture from her sister. So when we got to buy chairs and a couch and a bed, that was something!"

ATTACK YOUR OPPONENT'S WEAK SPOT

"I'd been a good player, but in 1935 I realized I could play at a top level when I played a match-play event in San Francisco. I was the lowest of the 32 players. A complete unknown. My first match was against Lawson Little, the back-to-back U.S. Amateur champion. A big deal! Well, I was nervous, but Leo Diegel told me ahead of time, 'Kid, Little hates to be outdriven. So really let it loose, and that'll shake him up.' On the first tee, I knocked one way past Little, and he gave me the old fisheye. I won the match, and the paper played it up big. 'Honeymooner beats Lawson Little.' [Laughs.] You had to read six inches of type before you saw my name! That got me invited to the Masters that year. The rest is history."

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