Nelson's greatness recalled, 100 years after his birth

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Byron Nelson was not only a legendary golfer, but a legendary person, too. He would have turned 100 today.
February 04, 2012
Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

The first thing that comes to mind aren't his hands.

Oh, they were huge. They didn't just hold a club, they practically swallowed those old leather grips. Did pretty much the same thing to your hand when he extended it for a firm how-do-you-do.

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They were a working man's hands. On the golf course, then at the ranch. And always, yes always, in his woodworking shop.

They wrapped their fingers around a cane as he got older, but they never tired of finding their way around a club -- or a knife or whatever substitute was handy -- to show someone the best way to finesse a shot.

They were legendary. But they were just one of those things we fussed over. Kind of like those incredible 11 consecutive wins and 18 victories in 1945, the scoring average, the majors, the elegant swing and the legacy he left behind.

Those were blessings, certainly. The kind that allowed him to walk away from competitive golf and live out his dream as a Texas rancher. The kind that made him a legend.

But Byron Nelson knew that true greatness came from something much deeper. From faith and honesty. From love and respect. From humility and grace.

And from character, which is -- and always will be -- the first thing that always comes to my mind.

Byron would have been 100 today and you don't have to be a Texan to realize that's yet another reason to celebrate one amazing life.

Has he really been gone for more than five years now? Has it really been almost four decades since I stood outside the press room and watched him work with Tom Watson on the putting green at Preston Trail?

Byron didn't just meet you. He touched your heart.

His eyes spoke to you. He always had time -- for a quick word, a picture with a stranger or a rambling interview that always diverged into an hours worth of amazing stories. He was old school. A proud man whose conversations were peppered with "Yes sirs" and "Yes ma'ms" and Texas terms, but never an expletive that needed to be deleted.

A legend in pictures
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He always did the right thing. He hand wrote personal letters. He made phone calls. He reached out to a player and let him know he was there if he could be of any help. Heck, he apologized for decades for taking a cigarette endorsement back in 1936 when he needed the money because he didn't smoke or drink. Worst thing, he always said, he'd ever done.

Just being in the same room with him, you felt his presence. But you never needed to worry about standing on ceremony with him because he simply wouldn't stand for it.

He was a role model for anyone, not just for golfers. He treated everyone with respect and it came back to him a hundred-fold. He didn't have to preach about his faith, he lived it. He was as humble a man as you'll ever meet and one with a heart the size of the Lone Star State.

The last time we talked the conversation roamed from a dry spell in Texas to his first Masters win to something nice he did for a man a few years back because it was simply the right thing to do.

If you're a golfer, you hear Byron and you immediately think Ben and Sam. He and Ben Hogan grew up together in the Fort Worth caddie pen at Glen Garden and lived no more than 30 minutes away from each other their entire lives . Then, he and Ben and Sam Snead pretty much ruled the game. But did you know that they only finished one-two-three -- as in Byron, Ben and Sam -- once in their careers? Yep, at the 1946 Tournament of Champions in Houston.

But if you knew Byron, you might just as well follow his name with Louise and Peggy. They were two of the blessings, he'd say, the Lord gave him.

Louise was his first wife, the one who was embarrassed when, after Byron beat Lawson Little in San Francisco, a headline said "Honeymooner Beats Little." Peggy was the second love of his life and, now, the quiet driving force behind the HP Byron Nelson Championship, a tournament they nurtured for so many years; the woman whose life is a mirror image of Byron's.

So when you pause today to think about Byron, don't stop at 1945. Look past the string of 11 straight, the mindboggling total of 18 wins and the litany of records and averages. Keep going through the magnificent swing, the halls of fame and his tournament where his memory lives on.

Think instead about the man. The Texas gentleman, the gentle man whose inspiration in life came from simple things like faith and honesty, love and grace; the legend whose life challenges us to be just a little better at who we are every day.

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