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The finest the game has ever known
It wasn’t so much that George Jacobus could see into the future, although what he said in the 1920s – “The training of juniors is a professional obligation” – is an industry staple nearly 100 years later.
But it’s more that he was able to see deep into a man’s character.
Consider the case of the youngster Jacobus hired to be his assistant at The Ridgewood Country Club. In sizing up Byron Nelson at the 1935 Masters, Jacobus had basic criteria – “a new, young U.S. citizen that has a possibility of being a nice man and a good player.”
More than 80 years later, Jacobus remains a master of clairvoyance. On the mark of being a nice man, Nelson is likely the finest the game has ever known. As for being a good player, you don’t need to use too many fingers to rank him.
Safe to say, Jacobus was a brilliant judge of men and because he was, Ridgewood has a rich layer of history that few clubs can match. It was here that the legend of Byron Nelson helped take shape.
Oh, mercy, was the money flowing Byron Nelson’s way in the spring of 1935. As if the $135 he earned for his share of ninth place in the second annual Masters (rounds of 71-74-72-74 left him nine shots behind the eventual winner, Gene Sarazen, in the year of the legendary “double-eagle” at the 15th in Round 4), Nelson’s agreement to take Jacobus’ job offer was accompanied by a yearly salary of – catch your breath here --$400.
Plus, Nelson could keep whatever money he earned with lessons. Talk about cash flow.
At the time, Nelson was just 23 but already married to his sweetheart from Texas, Louise, whom he had met at a Texarkana Church of Christ Sunday School. Louise’s father helped bankroll Nelson’s blossoming pro golf career – the royal blue Model A roadster was part of the loan package – but there’s little doubt that Jacobus’ invitation to Ridgewood provided the key to the great man’s golf career.
“That was the first good thing that happened to me in the advancement of my career,” Nelson said in 2001, five years before he passed at the age of 93.
Nelson was speaking that year in advance of the Senior PGA Championship, which the members of Ridgewood had opened its doors to. There had been a U.S. Senior Open in 1990, an LPGA Tour event in 1981 and a U.S. Amateur in 1974, but for many, this Senior PGA was the first time to peek inside the gates of this venerable club. So, Nelson was honored to return and reminisce and sing the praises of a place that was instrumental in his development.
“I learned the trade,” said Nelson. “I learned how to run a golf shop with George. That was a tremendous help.”
But if George Jacobus mentored Nelson the club pro, Ridgewood’s three nine-hole courses did wonders for Nelson the golf pro. “If you could learn to play those, you could learn to play anywhere,” he said. “My (golf) began to get better and my bad rounds began to come down.”
As Ridgewood prepares to host THE NORTHERN TRUST for the opening tournament in the FedExCup playoffs for a fourth time, it remains a flavorful trip to study just how special Nelson is to the club history here. He often talked with great pride of the time in 1947 when he returned to shoot 63 (June 29), far better than those assistant pro days when at his best he barely broke 70.
There is, of course, the tale so often told that it’s got a title. “The flagpole story” is iconic and Nelson never tired of telling it, describing it as a combination “peculiar . . . unusual . . . and lucky.”
It took place in 1936 as Nelson was walking past a group of caddies. Having just hit balls, Nelson said he was “locked in,” as he termed it, and thus didn’t hesitate to accept their challenge to try and hit a flagpole from about 80 yards. He dropped two balls onto firm, hard ground – “they heard me say I was used to playing on the hard turf in Texas” – and chose a 3-iron. For a 60-yard shot that was all about accuracy, not distance, it was the perfect choice, said Nelson.
The bet was a robust 53 cents – hey, it was 1936, the middle of The Great Depression, remember – and Nelson was 10 feet wide right with his first shot. But his second attempt was spot on, the flagpole clanged, “and I picked up my 53 cents” and went on his merry way.
Having seen the plaque that the club put on the spot from where Nelson hit his shots, the great man laughed the day he re-told the story. “It is funny how things happen to you,” he laughed.
If the flagpole story provides flavor to the Nelson folklore, what supplies testimony to the man’s incredible talent are the newspaper archives. Consider the landscape into which the 23-year-old Nelson arrived after the 1935 Masters. The heralded “Met Section” of the PGA already had an A list of competitors, from Paul Runyan to Johnny Farrell to Craig Wood to Ralph Guldahl to Vic Ghezzi, so when Nelson took on his first real test as a Ridgewood assistant in the New Jersey State Pro-Am Championship, no one was focused on him.
Yet paired with 22-year-old S. Ashton Clark Jr., the unheralded Nelson got into a share of the lead after two rounds, then helped his team to a win in four playoff holes against Ghezzi and his partner, Dr. H.V. Garrity.
“Meet Byron Nelson, New Jersey’s newest professional golfing sensation,” declared a reporter in the Courier-News of Bridgewater, N.J. “It was the slender Nelson’s debut in New Jersey championship play.”
It would take only a few days for more glory as Nelson took on the New Jersey State Open, also at Monmouth. If Farrell, the 1928 U.S. Open champion, got everyone’s attention by threatening the course record in a final-round charge, one reporter conceded he wondered about this Nelson gentleman after a 15-foot putt late gave him the lead.
“Gee, that’s pretty good golf for a cowboy,” he wrote in the Central New Jersey Home News of New Brunswick, N.J.
How good? Well, when Nelson won that New Jersey State Open at 4-over 288, it went into the books as the first of his 52 PGA TOUR wins. Then, a few weeks later he lost in a playoff to Maurrie O’Connor in the New Jersey PGA Championship. But coming on the heels of his State Pro-Am title, it was enough notice for local reporters.
“To Byron Nelson, young assistant professional at The Ridgewood Country Club, goes the No. 1 ranking for winning cash in New Jersey golf tournaments this year,” proclaimed the Courier-News.
Returning to Ridgewood for a second year, Nelson in 1936 cemented his growing reputation by winning the Met Open – PGA TOUR victory No. 2. “Now there’s an up-and-coming golfer I like,” gushed Tom McNamara, the Massachusetts-born professional who was the first to break 70 in a U.S. Open and was a two-time runner-up in the national open. “He’s got just enough of the closed-face stuff in his shots to get distance.”
Nelson’s performance at Quaker Ridge – 140 over 36 holes on Day 1, followed by trips of 72 and 71 – left a quality field in his dust. Wood, who would win the Masters and U.S. Open a few years later, was second, while Gene Sarazen, having already won seven majors, was tied for eighth. Others who couldn’t catch the 24-year-old Nelson were former U.S. Open winners Willie Macfarlane and Farrell, plus future major winners Runyan, Picard and Ghezzi.
“Mark my word,” said McNamara, “you’ll hear from Byron Nelson in a (U.S.) Open championship.”
As perceptive as Jacobus, McNamara didn’t have to wait long to be proven correct. In the spring of 1937, Nelson won the first of his two Masters, then in 1939 he triumphed in the U.S. Open, just as McNamara predicted. There were a pair of PGA Championship wins (1940, 1945) sandwiched around another Masters (1942), but he is perhaps best remembered for putting together the greatest season in PGA TOUR history in 1945 – 18 victories, including 11 in a row.
All of this, of course, took place after Nelson had left Ridgewood, his decision based on the opportunity in 1937 to become head professional at Reading Country Club in Pennsylvania. While it’s locked into the record books are reports of Nelson, “the gangling Irishman from Reading,” winning the fourth edition of the Masters, it’s all a matter of perspective.
Nelson, of course, was from Texas. But to many, he came of age at The Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey.
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