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Golf

Nelson humbled by his fame

For all his deeds, Byron Nelson is proudest of helping raise millions for troubled youths.

By BOB HARIG
Published May 13, 2004

ST. AUGUSTINE - All these years later, his accomplishments are hard to digest. Byron Nelson still has a difficult time believing what the record books show.

One of the features of a new exhibit celebrating the career of Nelson at the World Golf Hall of Fame is a large photo of the young golfer with all the highlights from his unforgettable 1945 season.

It is the year by which almost every great season in golf is measured. Nelson had 11 consecutive wins, 18 overall. He had a then-record scoring average of 69.67. His final-round average was 68.33.

Nelson, now 92 and host of this week's Byron Nelson Championship outside Dallas, said the key to that season was a New Year's resolution to improve the only areas of his game he felt were lacking: some poor chipping and an occasional careless shot. He was determined to do better, and did.

"It shows you how important one stroke really is in golf," said Nelson, the only former touring pro with his name on a tournament. "One shot doesn't sound like much, but I won eight times in 1944, improved one-third of a shot in '45 and won 18 times."

Nelson used to keep track of such things in his "Little Black Book," where he logged his scores, winnings and expenses.

For all his success in golf - his 52 victories on the PGA Tour, including five majors, rank fifth all-time - he told those gathered at an exhibit preview recently that his biggest accomplishment has been his work with the Dallas Salesmanship Club.

The group runs the Byron Nelson Championship and traditionally raises more money for charity than any other PGA Tour event, now totaling more than $75-million. The proceeds go to troubled youths in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the tournament has carried Nelson's name since 1968.

"I was shocked they wanted to use my name," Nelson said. "It has meant everything to me."

Vijay Singh is the defending champion of this week's tournament that often gets a stellar field out of respect for Nelson.

A visit to the Hall of Fame puts it all in perspective. The exhibit is called "Byron Nelson: A Champion ... A Gentleman."

Nelson got his start in the game as a caddie at Glen Gardens in Fort Worth, where he met another caddie who was born the same year and would become a longtime rival, Ben Hogan.

"I loved golf from the first time I ever stepped on the golf course," Nelson said. "I loved the swinging of the club, the nice people who were around."

On display at the Nelson exhibit is the first model of the Iron Byron hitting machine that the United States Golf Association used to test balls and clubs. The device was built using films of various golfers, but mostly Nelson, whose swing was considered perfect. He consulted and gave advice on the machine's operation, hence the nickname.

Nelson is considered the father of the modern golf swing and was one of the first to successfully make the transition from hickory shafts to steel.

Also on display is a replica of the plaque from the bridge between the 12th and 13th greens at Augusta National. The bridge was dedicated to Nelson in 1958 because he went birdie-eagle (2-3) on the 12th and 13th holes during the 1937 Masters, picking up six shots on leader Ralph Guldahl before going on to win the tournament.

The club and ball used for the key shot in Nelson's 1939 U.S. Open victory are on display. Nelson holed a 1-iron shot from 220 yards in a playoff with Craig Wood and went on to win 73-70.

There is a replica from General Mills showing Nelson on the back of a Wheaties box. This occurred after the 1945 season and Nelson was featured with two other "Champs of the U.S.A." - Joe Cronin, a shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, and Cecil Isbell of the Green Bay Packers. Nelson received $200 and a case of Wheaties every month for a year.

After getting a first-hand look at the exhibit, which brought back all kinds of memories, Nelson was overwhelmed.

"I never dreamed of anything like this," he said. "I never dreamed I'd do so many things or that there would be so much stuff about it. I guess it shows that I've been busy for 92 years. I love it and I'm extremely honored. It's hard for me not to get nostalgic looking at all of this. I've been fortunate all of my life. I've been more blessed than anybody I know in golf."

- For more information about the World Golf Hall of Fame, visit www.wgv.com or call 904-940-4000.

[Last modified May 13, 2004, 02:20:18]


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