Nelson remains role model for today's generation

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Byron Nelson retired at 34, and then spent the next 60 years promoting the game of golf.
May 15, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

Every pro sport has icons and idols, superb athletes who amaze with their exploits on the courts and playing fields. But when it comes to genuine role models -- elite players who inspire admiration and emulation in the arena of life as well as on the playing field -- golf has always had more than its share.

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PGA TOUR victories in the past two weeks by two very different players from generations a decade apart -- Rickie Fowler, 23, at the Wells Fargo Championship, and Matt Kuchar, 34, at THE PLAYERS Championship -- raise expectations that this tradition will continue.

What began with Bobby Jones in the Roaring Twenties has continued through the decades with Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.

None of these players is, or ever claimed to be, perfect. Flawed human beings are capable of inspiring others to greatness. Woods, for example, has had his weaknesses endlessly scrutinized and publicized, but the number of young people who have benefited from the work of his Tiger Woods Foundation built by the proceeds from his successes may be incalculable.

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Byron: 1912-1996
The 2012 HP Byron Nelson Championship marks the 100th anniversary of Byron Nelson's birth. Texas native Melanie Hauser takes a look back at the man who always spoke from the heart. Hauser
Take a look back at Byron Nelson's influence on the tournament that now bears his name. Photo Gallery

Nor is the list complete. There have been many golfers through the ages, women and men, whose profile was lower, but whose influence was enormous. Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam, Betsy King, Lorena Ochoa, to name a few. The point is that a sport that demands of its practitioners extraordinary levels of solitary discipline over mind and body, precisely performed over three or four days under pressures that reach extremes, has produced a large number of role models -- some suitable for framing.

In a case of perfect timing, the PGA TOUR returns to Texas this week for the HP Byron Nelson Championship, an event that carries the name of the man remembered as much for the way he conducted his life as the way he once dominated the sport. It is quite probable that Nelson's record of 11 straight victories set in 1945 will not be surpassed, nor will it be forgotten that he won 52 tournaments before retiring from competitive golf at the age of 34 -- a record that stood until Woods broke it in 2006 at the age of 30.

Demonstrating the consistency and constancy that were his hallmarks in golf and in life, Nelson won 18 of the 30 tournaments he entered in 1945, by an average margin of seven strokes. He finished second seven times and was out of the top five just once. His stroke average for the year was a record 68.33, nearly a full stroke better than Sam Snead's. And for that year he was golf's greatest closer, with an astonishing fourth-round stroke average of 67.45.

In the face of all this, the most unforgettable things about Byron Nelson were his humility and humanity. I had the great fortune to interview him at his ranch outside Dallas in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of his 11 straight victories. He said he had no regrets in golf, and only one real regret in life.

He recalled that in 1936, he signed a contract to endorse a cigarette brand. He was a devout, church-going man who never smoked, drank, chased women or stayed out late -- which Snead used to rib him about each year at the Champions Dinner at Augusta National during The Masters. He needed the money, he said, and took a $500 fee to endorse a cigarette called 20 Grand. When the ads came out, the letters came in.

"None of us realizes how many people we influence," he said then. "And there had been a lot of nice articles written about me, about how I was a nice Christian man who didn't smoke or drink or do this or that, and suddenly this ad comes out and I started getting some of the most terrible letters from schoolteachers and Sunday school teachers. They said, 'Well, there you are, just like everybody else, letting the almighty dollar get to you.' Five hundred dollars. I was sick about that. It was the worst thing I've ever done."

He said he tried to give the money back, but the company refused, and that he prayed about it "many, many times, brought it to the good Lord and said I'd never do anything again as long as I lived to influence people the wrong way."

Near as anyone can tell, he made good on the promise. And his tournament stands as a reminder, to every professional golfer, about the extent of their reach -- which has only increased at least a hundred-fold with the proliferation of electronic devices capable of bringing live golf action to devices held in the hands of children and adults of all ages.

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This is what makes Kuchar's cheerful enthusiasm for the game so important, and Fowler's combination of fashion-forward attire and old-school grit and determination so appealing. Each is sending a message for a lifetime to the future of the game, whether it's an executive and potential sponsor in a corporate boardroom or an 8-year-old aspiring TOUR pro wearing a flat-brimmed cap in the family TV room.

As Byron Nelson said, "None of us realizes how many people we influence." Rod Fowler, Rickie's father, said his son learned much about how to conduct himself from Jeremy McGrath, the great champion Motocross-Supercross rider whom Rod Fowler called "The Tiger Woods of Motocross."

"Rickie kind of grew up looking up to him," Rod Fowler said. "I tell Jeremy every time I see him, that's just a big reflection of him how Rickie handles himself out here.

"Rickie just took it all in on how to deal with people. Jeremy just always told him to be himself, don't try to be somebody you're not. He said he made mistakes, he embarrassed himself, but people love that. They don't want to see who you're not."

That might just be the best advice of all to a future role model.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.

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