Byron Nelson was many things: a great champion, a phenomenal athlete, a loving husband and a devout Christian. To me, he was also a boss, and a friend.
Since his death in 2006, Byron is never far from my thoughts, and he’s been on my mind especially this week because of the EDS Bryon Nelson Championship in Dallas, a tournament he loved.
I moved to Dallas to work with Byron. In 1998, I was 32 years old and living in Carmel, Calif., when I was offered the job of director of the Byron Nelson Golf School at the Four Seasons in Dallas.
Soon after I started, I met Byron. He said he wanted to hit some balls, and asked if I wouldn’t mind watching him. I thought, “Holy cow!” In my business I’m sometimes around sports stars and other celebrities, and I always am respectful of their privacy, but Byron took the lead and started chatting with me. He didn’t let a lot of people inside his circle, but when he did, man, was it special.
We worked together a lot before he hit his Masters ceremonial tee shot in 2001, his last as an honorary starter. Byron was really nervous and he kept trying to decide whether he should hit a 3-wood or a driver. I asked him, “How many times did you hit a 3-wood on the first tee at Augusta?”
Byron’s response: “Never. I think I should probably hit driver, don’t you?”
That story is one of my favorites because it shows that even when he was in his 80s, he still had those competitive fires burning inside. It was something to see. After having his hip replaced, he’d hobble up to the practice tee, but when he got ready to hit, and stood over the ball, he looked like he had never left the game and was still 35 years old.
When I read about Byron, that kindly gentleman in the popular imagination is not exactly whom I remember. He was a true gentleman, of course, but he was also a committed man. He was firm and consistent and he really held his ground. You don’t have that kind of success he had — especially in those days of driving to tournaments and four-figure purses — without being committed to your work.
People talk about Tiger Woods being the ultimate warrior. Byron was a warrior, too. He was a saint at the same time, but he was a fierce competitor. And I mean that in a good way. He and Hogan went at it all the time and Byron would beat the pants off him. One time, a frustrated Hogan told Nelson, “You know, if I could pitch like you, I’d win more tournaments than you.” Nelson responded, “Do you want me to teach you?”
More than anything else, Byron was a man who was determined to accomplish his goals, and those goals drove everything he did in life, right down to every swing of the golf club. He wanted to be a rancher, so he won enough money playing golf to buy a ranch and then stopped playing competitively at age 34. The game — if you can believe this — may have become too easy for him.
“My game had gotten so good and so dependable that there were times when I actually would get bored playing,” Byron would tell our students over lunch. “I’d hit it in the fairway, on the green, make birdie or par, and go to the next hole. The press even said it was monotonous to watch me. I’d tell them, ‘It may be monotonous, but I sure eat regular.'”
Seeing Byron at lunch with our students was always a treat. He’d sometimes stop in when we were working on chipping drills and putting drills. Everyone would stop hitting and just gape at Byron Nelson hitting chip shots right next to them.
He’d answer questions from students at lunch. Sometimes people would ask him about today’s players, but because only a handful of courses remain on the circuit from his playing days, he found it difficult to compare guys on Tour now with his own generation.
That old fire would come back though and he’d add, ” But I still have the lowest single-season scoring average (before Tiger Woods broke his record in 2000), and you still have to get the ball in the hole.”
Byron did think Tiger was an extremely dedicated young man. He liked the way he played and especially the way he conducted himself on the course. He probably saw a lot of himself in the way that Tiger sets goals and achieves them with single-minded determination. But he probably wouldn’t recognize Tiger’s (or Vijay’s) obsessive practice routine. I once asked him if he practiced after a round.
“Never,” he said. “When you got it, you got it.”