The HP Byron Nelson Championship is played May 21 through May 24 at the Four Seasons Las Colinas outside Dallas. The tournament is affectionately called “The Byron”, and it’s put on by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas. This is the first in a series of preview articles leading up to the tournament.
The numbers speak for themselves, but no matter how impressive Byron Nelson’s records are it’s the quality of the man people talk about first. He set records as a golfer that may never be touched, and it’s only appropriate that the tournament that bears his name continues to set records every year, even after his death.
BEFORE THE TOUR
John Byron Nelson, Jr. was born near Waxahachie, TX on February 4, 1912. Throughout his career on the course and his life afterward he’s intrinsically linked to fellow PGA Tour greats Sam Snead and fellow Texan Ben Hogan, as the three of them were born within 6 months of each other.
When Byron was 11 his family moved to Fort Worth, and he proceeded to have a close call with typhoid fever. At age 12 he was baptized, and it also marked the beginning of his life in golf, as he started caddying at the Glen Garden Country Club. The fact that caddies were not officially allowed to play on the club didn’t hold Byron back, as he used to sneak onto the course to play in the dark. A couple of years later the rules were relaxed a bit, and Byron defeated fellow caddy Ben Hogan in a 9-hole playoff to win the club’s caddy tournament.
BYRON ON TOUR
Byron Nelson turned pro at age 20 in 1932, initially splitting his time between tournament play and working as a golf pro. It was the latter capacity that took him to Texarcana, TX, where he met his wife to be Louise Shofner.
Byron won his first tournament in 1935, and between then and the end of his career in 1946 he won 52 professional tournaments. His first major victory was at the burgeoning Masters tournament in 1937, when he defeated Ralph Guldahl by two strokes. He also won the US Open in 1939, the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945, and a second Masters title in 1942.
1945 stands out in Byron Nelson’s career, as he won a total of 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row. Nobody has gotten close to either record since. Tiger Woods has referred to this achievement as “one of the greatest years in the history of sports“.
After his retirement he played very sparingly, but made several more appearances at The Masters. Byron Nelson has a long, fluid swing which many consider the predecessor of the modern golf swing. When engineers built a robot to simulate a golf swing they based it on Byron’s swing, and “Iron Byron” was born.
AFTER THE TOUR
Byron Nelson retired in 1946 to run a ranch, which had been a goal of his throughout his golf career. “I could see the prize money going into the ranch, buying a tractor, or a cow. It gave me incentive.” He also was a popular teacher and golf commentator.
The Dallas based pro tour event started playing in 1956, and Byron Nelson became the first professional golfer to have a tournament named after them in 1968. Of his involvement with the tournament and the charities that benefit from it Byron Nelson has stated “This tournament is the best thing that’s ever happened to me in golf. Better than winning the Masters or the U.S. Open or eleven in a row. Because it helps people.” Over the years the tournament has raised over $100 million dollars for various local charities, more than any other tournament on the PGA tour.
Byron Nelson died of natural causes in 2006 at age 94. After his death, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said of Byron “Our players, young and old, looked to Byron as the consummate role model of our sport. His legacy spans across his historic performances, the gentle and dignified way he carried himself and his tremendous contributions to golf and society.”