Golf Courses Designed by Byron Nelson

Golf has no greater ambassador than Byron Nelson. He is living golf history, the last link to a mist-enshrouded era when the game’s best were clad in neckties and competed with hickory-shafted clubs.

At 94, Lord Byron is feeling as well as a man his age has a right to. He may have missed his turn this past April as Master of Ceremonies at the annual Masters Champions Dinner, with golf royalty-in-waiting Ben Crenshaw filling in, but he’ll be a presence as always this week in Dallas, at the PGA Tour stop that bears his name.

The PGA Tour bestows its Byron Nelson Award to the player with the lowest adjusted scoring average for the season. To honor his name properly, the Tour should choose the classiest, most respected player on tour that year and crown him with a “Byron”-like winning an Oscar. So revered is Nelson that the biggest names in golf show up dutifully to play in his event, despite the yearly prospects of straight-from-the-Old Testament thunderstorms and a golf course that’s among the least dramatic and visually stimulating on Tour.

Indeed, Nelson possessed a singular, simple goal: to win enough cash to buy a ranch in his home state of Texas and retire there. After the 1946 season, Nelson did just that.

Nelson knew his way around a good golf course, having competed at Augusta National, Cypress Point, Seminole and St. Andrews, among many others, yet he only sporadically dabbled in golf course design. He was much like his contemporaries, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen in this regard, a far cry from today’s do-everything bunch.

Nelson’s design ledger, according to Cornish and Whitten’s The Architects of Golf, consists of just eight courses, mostly in consulting roles. Unfortunately, there’s not enough in the portfolio to discover much about the Byron Nelson design philosophy. If, however, you’d like to connect with Mr. Nelson in a more spiritual way, try these courses that all play a part in the Nelson legend.

Hershey Country Club (West Course), Hershey, Penn.
The 1940 PGA Championship here saw a sweet finish: Nelson made two late birdies to pip Sam Snead. The final hole back then (No. 5 in today’s configuration) was a par 3 with the green almost at the front steps of chocolatier Milton Hershey’s mansion. Nelson spanked a 3-iron to 10 feet to seal the deal. The Par-73 West features five robust par-5s on a heavily bunkered layout. No matter what you shoot, you won’t leave with a sour taste in your mouth-the Hershey chocolate factory is next door.

TPC at Las Colinas, Irving, Texas
Annual host to the PGA Tour stop that bears Nelson’s name, the TPC earned its status when Jay Morrish retrofitted the existing Las Colinas Sports Club course in 1987. With Nelson and Ben Crenshaw acting as design consultants, they revised an existing Trent Jones Jr. nine and added nine new holes. It’s far from the most exciting layout on Tour, but tree trouble, elevation changes and typical Texas winds serve as effective challenges. The par-4 14th and the par-3 17th (the latter re-worked with considerable skill by D.A. Weibring’s firm) are both graced by superbly placed water hazards.

El Rio Municipal, Tucson, Ariz.
Situated near downtown Tucson, gritty, urban El Rio Muni was founded in 1930 as a private club. It went public in 1968, but prior to that, played host to 18 Tucson Opens. The very first of these, in 1945, not only saw Nelson finish second, but was the last time a woman made a cut on the PGA Tour, when Babe Zaharias went the distance. In 2005, Ken Kavanaugh restored the Billy Bell design, making this museum piece in the desert a testy challenge once again, complete with small greens, deepened bunkers and fairways dotted with mature mesquite, Aleppo pine and Tamarisk trees.

Brackenridge Park, San Antonio, Texas
Nelson downed Ben Hogan in a playoff here to win the 1940 Texas Open on a layout designed in 1916 by A.W. Tillinghast. Unfortunately, the Texas version of Winged Foot this ain’t. By 1955, the layout had deteriorated so badly, the pros teed off in a February chill on rubber mats. That didn’t stop Mike Souchak from a first-round 60, on his way to a PGA Tour record 257 total. Today’s layout is modest in its challenge, but is certainly a pleasant, freakishly inexpensive muni that’s lined with pecan trees and which closes with a handsome par-3 over water.

Bayou Oaks, New Orleans, La.
Formerly known as City Park when it hosted the New Orleans Open from 1938 through 1962, the complex at one time had four courses with the PGA Tour doing battle with the East course, then known as City Park No. 1. Numerous reconfigurations through the years yielded revised layouts, though today, both the longer, stronger West course and the historic East contain holes the pros played. Nelson won two straight among the flat fairways and huge, sprawling oaks, in 1945 and 1946.

Grapevine Municipal, Grapevine, Texas
Before a superb Jeff Brauer layout called the Cowboys appeared in Grapevine, the town’s hilly, thickly treed municipal layout was considered an excellent test, at one time ranking among the top 50 public courses in the country. Make no mistake, however, this 1980 Joe Finger design in collaboration with Nelson and Ken Dye is still an affordable winner, even after its transformation to 27 holes in 1999, with the arrival of D.A. Weibring’s Bluebonnet nine.

Joe Passov is the Architecture and Course Ratings Editor of GOLF MAGAZINE. E-mail him your questions and thoughts at [email protected]