Golf’s Best Insult Lord Byron

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 02, 2007
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For years the little tournament in Dallas was one of the most popular stops on the tour, and it had nothing to do with course conditions or the size of the prize at the end of 72. The draw was Byron Nelson, and his combination of outstanding history and his warm, genteel behavior that had the biggest names in the sport waiting in line to shake his hand or to chat about nearly anything but golf.

At least that’s the way it used to be. This year, however, during a tournament that should serve as a tribute to the man who defined great athletics and elegance, something is terribly amiss.

Less than a year after Lord Byron’s passing, 11 of the top 15 players in the World Golf Rankings have decided to be somewhere else. To drop out the year after his passing, where his wife Peggy will hand out the trophy bearing his likeness, is an insult to the man and to the history of the game.

Unlike many sports, golf has done a great job remembering its history. Where other athletes are hard-pressed to identify those who paved the way, members of the PGA Tour not only know, but celebrate their fore-bears. It’s one of the things that draw people to a sport in which honor is tantamount and penalties are self-called.

While it is unfair to single out Tiger Woods for blame, his position as the game’s most dominant player and the friendship he shared with Nelson make his absence all the more unsettling. No other player may have a better understanding and appreciation of golf’s history than the world’s best player. Throughout his career, he hasn’t referred to past greats as Bobby, Byron, Sam or Ben, but Misters Jones, Nelson, Snead and Hogan. Woods has talked about the hand-written note Nelson sent him following his victory in the 1994 U.S. Amateur and how much it meant to him. It was one of about 50 Nelson had sent over the years since they had first met when Tiger was a teen.

Again, Tiger is not alone. Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington and Adam Scott are popular names who decided they had better places to be.

Fortunately, Vijay, Phil and defending champ Brett Wetterich were there to help pay tribute.

Byron Nelson was simply one of the greatest golfers in history, and holds one of sport’s most unbreakable records. In 1945 Nelson won 11 consecutive tournaments and 18 in total. So dominant was he that in 30 events that year he finished no lower than a tie for ninth and finished second seven times. Between the years of 1944 and 1946 Nelson played in 75 tournaments, winning 34, finishing runner up 16 times while finishing out of the top 10 only once. His stroke average of 68.34 held until Tiger topped him 55 years later, as did his record 113 consecutive cuts made.

Nelson’s swing was so mechanically precise that when the PGA developed a testing device it copied his swing and named the machine “Iron Byron.” A fitting honor for the man who, at the 1939 U.S. Open at the Philadelphia Country Club, won a bet against some caddies by striking a flagpole from 100 yards while hitting off a slate patio. He nailed the pin with six different clubs!

At the age of 34, Nelson had effectively retired and never looked back. That three-year run paid for the ranch. His instruction book Winning Golf covered the cost of the cattle. He played occasionally as a professional and in exhibitions where he would not go for the club record if established by the local pro.

The tournament he hosted since 1968 has raised $94 million to help at-risk youths, and the day after he passed, Congress awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award the nation can bestow upon a civilian.

Nelson had said that it would be nice to be remembered as a great golfer, but the bigger goal was to be known as a nice man with a lot of integrity, as somebody people could love and trust, as being friendly and a good Christian man.

Byron Nelson was all those things, and for that reason he deserves better from those who have profited so greatly from what he had helped established so many years ago.

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