Wednesday, June 27, 2007

An Honor for Byron Nelson, Golf’s Patron Saint


By DAVE ANDERSON
Sports of The Times
June 27, 2007

When Byron Nelson learned shortly before his death at 94 last year that he was about to be voted the Congressional Gold Medal, he told his wife, Peggy, “I never imagined such an honor.” But as much as anything else, his humility was the reason he earned it.

His reaction was typical of a golfer who never imagined that he would win a record 11 consecutive PGA Tour events in 1945, and typical of a legend who never imagined that his name on a golf tournament would help raise more than $100 million for less fortunate children and families in the Dallas area.

In other years, only four sports personalities — Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Roberto Clemente — had received the Congressional Gold Medal, described as “the highest expression of national appreciation” to those whose community service has improved the lives of others less fortunate.



And yesterday, in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol building in Washington, the medal was presented to his widow, Peggy.

“Byron would be the first to say that the people on the Salesmanship Club of Dallas committee and the people who work on the tournament deserve the medal,” Peggy Nelson said in a telephone interview last week. “He never received a penny from the tournament. He was just happy it kept his name alive.”

His name was that of golf’s patron saint.

For those who think Tiger Woods invented golf, think again. Not that Byron Nelson invented it; the Scots did centuries ago. And Nelson didn’t popularize golf here; Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen did. But in winning those 11 consecutive tournaments and 18 over all in 1945, Nelson put the PGA Tour on the sports map.

Soon after, with enough money to buy the Texas ranch he always wanted, he stopped playing on the Tour at age 35. But a decade later, he was golf’s first television analyst. As one of the first swing gurus, he sculpted Tom Watson’s game. And since 1968, the Dallas stop on the Tour has had Byron Nelson in its name.

When this year’s EDS Byron Nelson Championship was won by Scott Verplank, who carried a scoring standard at the tournament as a Dallas youngster, he told how Nelson had not only polished his swing as a teenager, but over the years had written him some 30 notes of encouragement on golf and life. No matter what Nelson did, he was known for his kindly and gentle, if not religious, manner.

At a 50th anniversary celebration of his 11-tournament winning streak, his longtime rival, Sam Snead, talked about how Nelson “never had any fun” because he didn’t drink and didn’t dance. But when Byron got up to speak, Peggy Nelson recalled, “He said, ‘Well, Sam, you think winning 11 in a row wasn’t fun?’ ”

Lonely after his first wife, Louise, died in 1985, Byron renewed his acquaintance with Peggy Simmons, an advertising copy writer he had met in Dayton, Ohio, in 1981. They married on Nov. 15, 1986, when she was 42 and he was 74.

“Byron saw something in me that he liked,” she said. “But he told me he didn’t know how much time we’d have together. So he wanted to celebrate our anniversary the 15th of every month. And we did. Usually with a present. Always with a card. At first we were just hoping to get to 100 months and then we hoped to get to 200 months. We got to 238 months.”

Among those with Peggy at yesterday’s ceremony were Jon Bradley, Byron’s business manager, and Lil Teddlie, Peggy’s piano teacher for the past five years.

“I always wanted to learn to play the piano,” Peggy said. “And every evening before we went to bed, Byron would sit and listen to me play for half an hour. He loved ‘Clair de Lune.’ But what I miss the most was just being with him. His constant praise of how pretty I am, what a good cook I am. I always hear the echoes. He called me Queen of All Queens, and Angel Doll.”

In turn, Peggy often told Byron how handsome he was.

“He once told me that nobody ever told him he was handsome,” Peggy said. “And I said, ‘Didn’t Louise ever tell you that?’ I remember him telling me that Louise was dating a bank clerk before she knew Byron, so I said, ‘Were you better looking than that bank clerk?’ And very firmly, he said, ‘Yes, I was.’ ”



Byron Nelson was a virtuous man. His friends tell the story that when he was about to have hip-replacement surgery at an advanced age, his doctor reminded him that the percentage of successful operations was high, but there was always a small chance that he could die. Byron never blinked.

“What you’re telling me,” he said, “is that either I’ll be fine or I’ll be in heaven.”

For that philosophy alone, Byron Nelson deserved the Congressional Gold Medal.

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