Byron Nelson: His Last Interview

September 9, 2008

“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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!”


“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.”


“The best round of golf I ever played was at the 1937 Masters. Not the best score, but the best round. I didn’t putt that good, but I shot a 66. I was in the zone. I walked off the 18th green and shook [playing partner] Paul Runyan’s hand, and he said, ‘You did something I’ve never seen before.’ I didn’t know what he meant, but I had played perfect golf tee-to-green. I hit every par 3 in one, every par 4 in two and every par 5 in two. That’s 32 swings in 18 holes. I was in the moment, as they say. I wasn’t thinking about what I was gonna shoot, or how many greens I hit. Forget about that last birdie or that last bogey when you get to the next tee. Just forget it. It’s gone. Play one shot. One shot. One shot. That’s how you do it. That’s golf.”


“Another thing about the ’37 Masters: There are times to be brave. On Sunday I was three shots down to Ralph Guldahl with nine to play. I came to 13, the par 5 with water in front, with Ralph playing in front of me. I’m in the fairway and I saw him make 6, so my caddie and I talked about laying up, so I’d make no worse than 5 and gain a shot. But I just knew I could get a 3-wood to that little ol’ green. So I said, ‘The Lord hates a coward. Give me the 3-wood.’ I took it, knocked it on the left edge, and chipped in for eagle! That was my first Masters win. By nature I’m conservative, but sometimes you have to step boldly.”


“Ben Hogan and I knew each other since we were kids, but we were not really friends. We were well acquainted, let’s say. When Ben built a nice home in Fort Worth, I was never invited to his house. I never got a call to come over. I never got a call from Hogan in my life. I never heard him crack a joke or say something funny. The man wanted to be left alone. I respect that, but I’ve always believed in having lots of friends and family around you. One time Ben and I played together in Fort Worth. We went to the caddie master, and Ben’s caddie, this little kid, said, ‘Hi, Mr. Hogan!’ Ben just looked at the boy and said, ‘You know the rules: Carry my clubs and keep your mouth shut.'”


“I only threw a club once in a tournament, but boy, I really threw it! I was playing in Canada with Horton Smith. I was swinging well but not putting great. I missed a three-footer and, as we walked off the green, I was so mad that I snapped. I threw that putter up into this big old evergreen. It hit some branches, wobbled, and came back down. That got some tension out, and I calmed down and shot 66. That night, Horton, who was older, said, ‘You know, I was disappointed to see you throw that putter today. I’ve never seen you do that.’ And he gave me a little lecture, which I deserved. Then he smiled and said, ‘But if you hadn’t thrown that putter, I don’t think you would have shot 66.'”


“In ’35 in the practice round at a tournament in Winston-Salem, I put a ball into this ditch on the long par-3 eighth hole and made a 6. Well, the thought of playing that hole haunted me all that night. When I got there in the first round, I was already 5-over. And it hit me: ‘You dumbbell! You’ve been worrying about the shot all day, and now your whole round is ruined.’ I put all this pressure on myself. That creates tension and changes your rhythm. So you want to think every shot is like a shot you hit at the range. No tension. Just hit the darn ball.”


“The way I played in 1945, well, I was in a trance most of the time. My concentration had gotten so good. When I hit a bad shot, I never much thought about it. I just went on. Some people have said, ‘All the good players were off fighting the war when you won 11 straight.’ Well, Hogan played in 18 events that year, and Snead played 26 events. And at the PGA Championship [which was match play], I had to beat Gene Sarazen, Mike Turnesa, Denny Shute and Claude Harmon. It took 204 total holes, at 37-under. And my scoring average for the year was 68.3. Not that I’m bragging.” [Smiles.]


“Yep, the streak was a lot of pressure. The best way to deal with pressure is to regulate your breathing. You get excited when you breathe faster, and as you breathe faster you swing faster. That’s not good. So you have to slow your walk, and take deep, slow breaths. That lets you keep your rhythm.”


“People think you’re supposed to do what you’re supposed to do. I don’t believe in that. I believe in listening to that little voice inside. After 1945, I was supposed to keep playing, to set more records. But that little voice was telling me something else. I was raised in farm country, and I wanted a ranch. So we found 630 acres here in Roanoke. But I needed to pay for it outright-I don’t like debt. It’s important to own what you own. So that last year or so, I was playing for records and because I loved golf, sure. But I was playing for Louise and me, for our ranch. So in that last year, I’d hit a good shot, I’d make a putt, and I’d say, ‘There’s another cow!'”


“One of the greatest feelings in life is setting out to do something, and then following through to do it. I made up my mind that I wanted to win every important tournament in the United States, and after ’45 I’d almost done it. But I hadn’t won the L.A. Open. Now, I had desires, and I never backed off anything. So I wasn’t gonna stop until I won it, which I did in ’46. I did what I set out to do. That felt special, and I said, ‘So long,’ to playing after that.”


“Everyone was surprised when I quit. Even Louise could hardly believe it. But I knew this about me: I wanted new challenges, new experiences. I wanted the ranch. I started writing for the newspaper. [Later] I did radio and TV. I’ve never been much to sit around. I run around, but I can’t sit around. Even today, I’m active. I do woodworking. I got a stool to roll along on. Have to have that. I can’t sit around!”


“I don’t smoke. The amount I’ve smoked would not take the length of one cigarette. And I’ve never been one to drink. I had the lead going into the last round of the Miami Open in 1940, and there was a party. Someone convinced me to have a glass of champagne. I could feel it some, but it wasn’t too bad. Well, the next morning I was pretty hungover. I shot 38 on the front, and I got pretty mad at myself for having that glass. But I held on to win. It was a good lesson.”


“I haven’t had a lot of stress, but I did when my first wife, Louise, had a stroke, on Good Friday, 1983. They said she wouldn’t live another two weeks. Well, she lived another two years. She was completely paralyzed and never spoke again, except to say, ‘Home, home, home.’ Golf isn’t stress. When the woman you’ve loved your whole life can only say ‘home,’ that’s stress.


“If I could go back in time and talk to my 20-year-old self? I’d tell him this: ‘Do it all the same.’ I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve taken care of my body and mind, I’ve done the things I wanted, and surrounded myself with wonderful friends and family. If you do that, you won’t have many regrets.”


“What’s always gotten me through life was this: Be nice to people. When I walk through the pearly gates and He greets me, I’d like to hear Him say, ‘Byron, you’ve been a good man. Come on in.'”


Lord Byron left a lasting impression on all he met

“Even when Nelson is only halfway putting, he can’t be beaten. He plays golf shots like a virtuoso. He is the finest golfer I have ever seen.” -Tommy Armour, winner of 25 PGA Tour events

“He could hit a 1-iron or a 2-iron that carried over 200 yards no more than 15 feet in the air. I’ve never seen anybody else hit the ball quite the way he did.”

-Bob Toski, former PGA Tour pro and golf instructor

“I was 7-under and still lost. How the hell are you supposed to beat this man?”

-Mike Turnesa, after losing 1-down to Nelson in the second round of match play at the 1945 PGA Championship.

“I remember my dad telling me he won 11 straight. That’s what you call a hot streak.”
-Tiger Woods, who twice has won six straight PGA Tour events

“Byron has the most wonderful friends. About 10,000 close friends at last count.”

-Peggy Nelson, his wife of 20 years

“He taught me one thing above all as the years went by. I sum it up as, ‘Be good to the game and give back.'”
-Ken Venturi, one of Nelson’s most successful protégés

“Golf has never had a nicer champion.”
-Jack Nicklaus, 18-time major champion


A look back at his milestone moments

1912John Byron Nelson Jr. is born Feb. 4 on a cotton farm in Long Branch, Texas.

1923 – His family moves to Forth Worth; 11-year-old Byron contracts typhoid fever and nearly dies.

1924Becomes a caddie and learns to play at Glen Garden Country Club in Ft. Worth.

1927 – Squares off with another promising young player in the final of the Glen Garden caddie club championship. Nelson wins. His opponent? Ben Hogan.

1928 – Drops out of 10th grade and takes a job with the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway as a file clerk. A year later, in the midst of the Depression, he is laid off. “If it hadn’t been for the Depression,” Nelson once said, “I’d probably just be a retired railroad worker.”

1931Leaves Texas for the first time to play in the U.S. Amateur in Chicago; fails to advance to match play.

1932Turns professional at the Texarkana Open.

1935 – Takes an assistant pro job for the summer at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey; earns $400. Wins the New Jersey State Open, his first victory as a pro.

1937Wins his first of two Masters, shooting a back-nine 32 on Sunday. Golf writer O.B. Keeler dubs him “Lord Byron” because, he says, Nelson’s grace reminded him of a piece of poetry Lord Byron wrote about Napoleon at Waterloo. The name sticks.

1939Wins the U.S. Open at Philadelphia Country Club.

1940 – Becomes the pro at Inverness Country Club in Ohio; wins first of two PGA Championships, defeating Sam Snead in the 36-hole final at Hershey (Pa.) Country Club.

1941 – Logs 22 top-10 finishes in Tour events.

1942Wins his second Masters, edging Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff.

1944 – Wins nine times and places in the top 10 in 23 consecutive events; named the AP’s Sportsman of the Year.

1945Wins 18 times, including 11 straight; again named AP Sportsman of the year.

1946 – At 34, retires from fulltime professional golf after saving enough to buy a 630-acre ranch in Roanoke, Texas.

1957Begins broadcast career as a golf analyst with CBS. He later works for ABC.

1965Captains the U.S. Ryder Cup team to victory.

1966Plays his final Masters.

1968 – Lends his name to the fledging Dallas Open. The event becomes the Byron Nelson Golf Classic.

1974Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

2001Hits the ceremonial first tee shot at the Masters in his final year as an honorary starter.

2006Dies at 94, on Sept. 26, of natural causes, at his ranch in Roanoke; posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his philanthropy.


Nelson’s swing stemmed from a shift in technology

Byron Nelson emerged as world-class golfer just as steel shafts were beginning to replace traditional hickory shafts, and he was the first to realize that steel required a less “handsy” swing. He determined that using the leg, hip and torso muscles was a more reliable and powerful way to hit a ball. The World Golf Hall of Fame notes: “Nelson was particularly noteworthy for the way his swing was more upright and along the target line, employing a full shoulder turn with restricted wrist cock, and for the way he kept his knees flexed in the downswing.”

How flawless were his mechanics? When True Temper Sports developed a robotic swing device in 1964, its technicians, in search of a model, studied high-speed photography of the swings of dozens of Tour pros and scratch amateurs. Nelson’s motion was the most efficient, wasting the least energy from the top of the swing through impact. The machine, which the USGA now uses to determine equipment standards, was at first called the “Golf Club Testing Device.” Years later it assumed the muchcatchier moniker: “Iron Byron.”


Eleventh Heaven
Byron Nelson’s 11-tournament winning streak has held up as the Tour’s best for 61 years—and it may remain so for 61 more. Here’s where and how he pulled it off.
Event Final Score in
relation to par
Strokes won by Earnings
1 Miami Four-Ball match play $1,500
2 Charlotte Open -16 4 $2,000
3 Greater Greensboro Open -13 8 $1,333
4 Durham Open -4 5 $1,333
5 Atlanta Open -13 9 $2,000
6 Montreal Open -20 10 $2,000
7 Philadelphia Inquirer Invitational -11 2 $3,333
8 Chicago Victory National Open -13 7 $2,000
9 PGA Championship match play $3,750
10 Tam O’Shanter Open -19 11 $13,600
11 Canadian Open E 4 $2,000
Total earnings: $34,849 (about $391,600 in today’s dollars)
Arnold Palmer on The Streak: “In 1945, Byron Nelson was the greatest golfer of all time. The man won 11 tournaments in a row. Some people say it was the war and lack of competition, but that’s bull. In 1945 Byron Nelson was as close to a machine as anyone who ever played golf.”

5 – Major victories (1937 and ’42 Masters, 1939 U.S. Open, 1940 and ’45 PGA Championship)

11 – Consecutive wins in 1945 (a Tour record)

18 – Total wins in 1945 (year of The Streak); finished second seven times

34 – Age at which he retired

52 – Career PGA Tour victories, sixth all-time

65 – Consecutive tournaments he finished in the top 10 from 1942-46

68.33 – Scoring average in 1945

67.67 – Fourth-round scoring average in 1945

113 – Consecutive cuts made, second all-time to Tiger Woods’ 142