From the Golf Journal Archives - Lord Byron: At Peace on His Texas Ranch

May 21, 2010

Byron Nelson, one of the finest golfers who ever played the game, will be at pre-Open festivities. His interests range from Watson’s game to his own.

By Rhonda Glenn

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 1986 issue of Golf Journal.)

Etched against the winter’s desolate horizon, a solitary longhorn steer nibbled the grass in Byron Nelson’s north pasture. It was a huge beast; even from a distance the top of his gray shoulder was as high as a man, and the points of his curved horns were fully three-and-a-half feet apart.

Nelson peered out of his ranch-house window at the steer. “He’s old and he’s thin,” he said. “He’s about 18 years old. Longhorns live a long time.”

Western writer Louis L’Amour would call the steer “an old mossy horn.” He says an old longhorn is so smart that he is one of the most spirited and dangerous animals in the West when he is in a tight spot.

A few ranchers have tried to resurrect the longhorn, and several small herds are scattered around Texas. They are tough, hearty cattle, well-suited to long drives in the hot sun, but there isn’t much meat on them, so most ranchers go for beefier breeds, like the black Angus or the more glamorous Charolais.

In the old days, cowhands on horseback drove bellowing herds of longhorns up the cattle trails from south and west Texas – an adventure that was mostly dust, grit, trouble, and a little cash when the job ended. Roanoke, a railroad stop about a mile east of Nelson’s Fairway Ranch, was one of the towns at the end of the trail where the longhorns were driven onto cattle cars on the old Texas and Pacific Railroad and shipped to packing plants in the north.

Roanoke’s stockyards and railroad station are gone now. A land boom is underway, and quaint shops and realtors’ storefronts have popped up on Oak Street. Nelson was recently offered several million dollars for his 760-acre ranch. He turned it down, but some old-timers are selling out. The lone reminder of Roanoke’s former glory is the hulk of the old Rock Saloon, a two-story building with boards nailed over its arched Palladian windows.

“FOR LEASE,” the owner has scrawled on the boards. “SAVE HISTORY.”

ROANOKE HAS HAD other noted residents, besides Nelson, but they were more or less passing through. Sam Bass, a popular train robber and horse thief, hung out at the Rock Saloon in the late 19th century. Locals say that Bass stole only from the rich, a fair assumption since few outlaws have prospered by stealing from the poor.

In the Depression year of 1931, the hardest part of Texas history, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a notorious crime team, careened around Roanoke in a variety of stolen cars, speeding up and down Old Grapevine Highway en route to their dastardly deeds. That year, Byron Nelson, who grew up in Fort Worth, 20 miles from Roanoke, was defending champion of the Southwest Amateur. A year later he entered the Open for the first time. He shot 80 in the first qualifying round and withdrew. Ben Hogan and Jack Grout failed to qualify, too. A year later, Byron turned pro.

On the television set in Nelson’s ranch house, rainbow-hued golf warriors flailed their metal drivers through the final round of the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Nelson keeps one eye on the tournament as we talk, easily juggling the audio with his comments on his current life, remarks that are alternately amusing, insightful, or sad.

I HAD SEEN Nelson infrequently since that week in April, 1983, when his wife of 51 years suffered a debilitating stroke. Louise Nelson died last October.

The ranch house is her creation, a brick-and-cedar-shake home of great warmth and character, where the Nelsons’ friends have gathered over the years. Few know that it was Louise who inspired Byron’s greatest season.

In 1944, Byron told her that he wanted to buy a Texas ranch. Louise, ever practical, said it would suit her, but Nelson should not use their hard-earned savings. He would have to earn the money outright.

Nelson won eight tournaments in 1944, and in 1945, he began a record-shattering season. In an incredible stretch, he won 11 successive official tournaments. He won 19 total events that year, but one of them, a 36-hole affair in New Jersey, was unofficial. Nelson had his money, and the couple bought the ranch in 1946.

Mrs. Nelson deemed the house a disaster, and she virtually rebuilt it, altering rooms, adding graceful porches and wide-paneled pegged oak floors. The house today is a cheery place; sunlight streams in through big, sparkling windows, glinting through small pieces of stained glass that Louise had hung to frame the view.

Byron no longer looks devastated. Clearly, his wife’s illness has been the most profound experience of his life, but he seems at peace, as if his final care for her measures up to the strict standards of his personal code. In the months since her death, a spring has returned to his step, and he has regained his appetite, weighing in at a trim 185 pounds, his old playing weight. Nelson is indeed a big man, but if his presence dominates any room he enters, it’s more from the sheer force of his personality. The old exuberance is returning, and after two years of a very personal tragedy, Nelson once again seems larger than life. When he smiles, which is more often now, his big round face is as open and as warm as the sun.

IT HAD BEEN a good weekend. Tom Watson, Nelson’s long-time student, had visited and Byron had just taken him to the airport. “Tom came to visit Louise twenty-one times after her stroke,” Nelson said thoughtfully.

Watson stays at the ranch during his visits. The two men sometimes shop at Steele’s Market, in nearby Roanoke, striding up and down the aisles with a grocery cart, buying whatever it is that men buy when they’re forced to cook for themselves.

Shoppers at Steele’s know Byron, of course, but they can’t quite place Watson. Away from his natural backdrop, this polite young-looking man with red hair and arms like cordwood takes on a pleasant anonymity. But the Roanoke people know something is familiar about Byron’s young friend, so they smile, and Watson smiles back.

Tom Watson’s career is Nelson’s main golf interest today. What makes this partnership work is that, while many good teachers know a lot about golf, Byron Nelson understands golf and the subtleties of performing under pressure. They have spent the morning at Preston Trail Golf Club, in Dallas, where they are members.

It is almost eerie to think of these two men, who own such large slices of golf’s history, earnestly studying the game in this remote corner of the Southwest. The town of Roanoke doesn’t even have a driving range, much less a golf course.

In 1978, Nelson and Joe Finger, a golf course architect, designed a little jewel of a course at Grapevine Lake just a few miles away. Grapevine Municipal Golf Course is one of the nation’s more challenging public courses, winding its way over the most beautiful part of north Texas. This is ancient land; dinosaur tracks were found nearby after a 1979 flood that washed out part of the first nine. An elm tree next to the 13th green is more than 200 years old, and the fairways are graced by giant pecan and oak trees. Nelson and Finger plotted the course to take advantage of the natural terrain, winding the green ribbons of fairway up the hills to the edge of a dark forest.

In this barren, arid state, only Jimmy Demaret’s Onion Creek Country Club or The Champions, in Houston, has the lush greenery of Grapevine Municipal.

“Joe and I would love to find some way to put that course in the condition of a country club,” Nelson said. “It’s a good golf course, but it has so much play. We have another 18 laid out behind it that’s just as good as that one.”

NELSON PAUSED and smiled. An old black and white film clip of Bob Hope and Sam Snead was on the television screen.

The game today, Nelson said, is very different from the days when he joined Snead and Ben Hogan as part of golf’s great triumvirate. Like the best players of his era, Nelson was a shotmaker – and he still is.

One recent lucky day, I joined Nelson for a round of golf. At 74, his skill in moving the ball around a golf course remains an act of beauty.

Shotmaking ability is a very subtle talent. Most good players can manage a big banana slice around a tree or a snap-hook around a dogleg, but a true finesse player makes small, nearly invisible adjustments that turn golf into an art.

On one long par-4, Nelson faced a carry of about 220 yards to a flat-topped elevated green, A strong wind blew from left to right, into his face. Byron pulled out his persimmon 3-wood and took his flex-kneed stance over the ball. Without any seeming adjustment, he made a quick swing and the ball cracked off the clubface, rocketing into the wind. The wind couldn’t touch it. The ball held its own, even falling to the left as it dropped 12 feet from the flagstick.

With only a minor change in the way he picked up the club, taking a normal grip after he had closed the clubface, Nelson had hit a slight draw. The shot had held in the wind and given him enough distance to make the long carry. Birdie.

The very next hole was a par-3 with the flagstick tucked in the front left corner of another elevated green, 150 yards away and dead into the wind.

Nelson chose a 4-iron, normally far too much club, but to go for the flagstick he had to make the ball stop quickly, before it bounced off the green. The ball shot off the clubface, never rising more than 15 feet above the ground. It hit the green with a loud thunk, about five feet to the right and past the hole, then spun back to within two feet. Birdie again.

“Yeah, I cut it in there,” Nelson said after I exclaimed over the shot. “Players today hit everything full out,” he continued. “They hit it high and fly it all the way to the hole.”

Nelson says the actual execution of golf shots has changed because agronomy and better greenkeeping have greatly improved golf-course conditioning.

“When I was playing, we had to learn to move the ball around and play different shots because you never knew what condition the greens would be in,” he said. “A green could have hard places over here and soft spots there, and you had to play around them.”

Fairways today are much smoother, demanding far fewer shots from tight lies or bald scrapes, he said.

BYRON NELSON developed his version of the modern golf swing in the early 1930s to match the evolution of golf clubs. Until 1924, only wood-shafted clubs were permitted. That year, the USGA sanctioned the use of the new steel shaft. Steel wasn’t approved by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, until 1931.

Steel was a great improvement over the more flexible hickory shaft. The wood shafts were whippier, twisted at impact, and were so porous they could be affected by such minute factors as humidity. Steel retained a constant flex, had much less torque, and made the repetitive power swing the swing of the future. Swingers were forced to put more of a hit into a shot to get distance from the steel-shafted club.

Nelson knew he would have to alter his swing, adapting it to steel shafts to be competitive.

“In 1935, I took the job as assistant to George Jacobus at Ridgewood Country Club, in Ridgewood, New Jersey,” he said. “In those days, we used a much wristier swing, and I found I couldn’t get any power using my old swing.

“I thought about it, and the best way seemed to be to use my legs more, instead of a hand-type swing. So I began working on it. Nobody showed me how to do it, but I told Jacobus what I was trying to do. He said, ‘I think you’ve got something there.’ So I asked him if he would check me out on the practice tee when he was giving lessons, just to see if I was doing what I wanted to do. He agreed.

“In 1936, I won the Met Open with the new swing, and in 1937, I won the Masters, and I never looked back.”

His Masters victory put Nelson solidly at the top. On the final nine holes, he was playing smoothly and stood four strokes behind Ralph Guldahl.

“Then came one of those dramatic bursts that punctuate Nelson’s tournament record,” Ross Goodner wrote. “On the 12th and 13th holes, Guldahl took a 5 and a 6, while Nelson was getting a 2 and a 3 – birdie, eagle. The struggling young Texan had won a big tournament.”

NELSON’S ASSAULT on the record books was under way. While he dominated the Tour during the early and mid-1940s, in 1945, his 19 victories produced his biggest money harvest, as he earned $63,335.66, paid in war bonds. A dollar was a dollar in those days, and Nelson’s profits were fine, but he didn’t bank the riches that today’s top professionals do.

“People say it’s too bad that I won all those tournaments and the prize money was so small," he said. “I’m not envious. It was fun playing when I played, and I don’t think it’s as much fun now. Besides, I don’t owe anybody. I own my home. I have everything I need to eat and wear, and I have a real nice car.

“I never played in the senior tournaments. When they started the Senior Tour, they contacted me and I said ‘no.’ I’ve competed all I wanted to compete. I have no desire and I’ve got other things I want to do.”

Nelson chuckled. “A lot of people don’t understand that. Of course, it’s easier to tell them now – I tell them I’m too old.”

BYRON NELSON won 11 successive tournaments in 1945 – a record that has survived for 41 years – yet that is only one of the standards he established. His accomplishments are sprinkled through the PGA Tour Book like raisins in a fruitcake.

In 1945 he averaged 68.33 strokes in 120 rounds. It is not the record for the Vardon Trophy, however, because no awards were made from 1942 to 1946. The Vardon Trophy record was set by Sam Snead, in 1950, with an average of 69.23, nearly a full stroke higher than Nelson’s in 1945.

He still owns another marvelous record. During the 1940s, at a time when the Open, for example, was paying only 25 places, the Masters 12, and some others even fewer, Nelson finished in the money in 113 consecutive tournaments, an achievement that ranks with Joe DiMaggio’s hitting in 56 consecutive baseball games.

The Associated Press named him Athlete of the Year in 1944 and 1945. During his memorable 1945, Nelson also set another mark that has endured; he played 19 consecutive rounds under 70. It is little wonder that he won 54 tournaments during his career, ranking fifth behind Sam Snead, who has 84; Jack Nicklaus, 70; Ben Hogan, 62; and Arnold Palmer, 61, nor that True Temper would pattern the swing plane of its golfball-driving machine used in testing golf balls after Nelson’s swing (the USGAs device, appropriately, is called Iron Byron).

He won the 1939 United States Open, and might have won a second, in 1946, had not his caddie stumbled as he ducked under a gallery rope and kicked his ball. Later he bogeyed the last two holes and fell into a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and Vic Ghezzi. Mangrum won. He won the Masters twice, and the PGA Championship. He’s in the PGA Hall of Fame, and the World Golf Hall of Fame. He was a great champion during a golden era. When he quit, in 1946, at 34, he went out a winner.

“BE THE BEST you can be at whatever you do,” Nelson once advised a young player. “Be the best golfer you can be. Be the best businessman you can be. Be the best husband you can be.”

Having once again drawn from that strength of will that separates the excellent among us from the average, Byron Nelson begins another new season. This spring, he’ll keep an eye on young Watson’s career. Once again in May, he’ll act as host to the Byron Nelson Classic, the annual Dallas stop on the PGA Tour. When summer rolls around, there’s an exhibition he’d like to play in, so he’s getting his own game in shape. He’ll also be on hand for festivities prior to the 1986 US. Open, at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, in Southampton, New York, on Long Island.

Nelson looked out through the window. The old longhorn, another survivor, was down by the fence, where the land rolls north in great straw-colored swales. Each window framed a view: Louise’s rock gardens, her birdhouses, the crepe myrtles she planted along the rail fence. Towering Spanish live oak trees sheltered the ranch-house roof and the air outside smelled of fallen leaves.

The sky was clear, windless, and Nelson’s Fairway Ranch sparkled in the winter sun.

Byron and his wife, Louise Nelson, nervously await the outcome of a late summer PGA tournament in 1944, a year in which he was named the Athlete of the Year by The Associated Press. (USGA Museum)

A solid sign of Nelson’s busy life is the paperwork that is companion to his activities. It occupies him in his sunny ranch house. (USGA Museum)

Nelson also keeps horses. He will have to leave his livestock to the attention of others occasionally this summer when he attends pre-U.S. Open festivities on Long Island, N.Y.; plays host, in Dallas, at the Byron Nelson Classic; and makes an exhibition appearance in Kansas. (USGA Museum)