BYRON NELSON, BenHogan and Sam Snead, the first great American golf triumvirate, were all bornin the same year, 1912, and they all had crisp, legible, enduring signatures.Hogan died in 1997, Snead in 2002 and Nelson, who left the vagabond life of themid-century touring pro a decade or more before the other two, last week, at94. You'll see their names on golf clubs, golf shirts and golf tournaments foryears to come, not because they were so savvy at p.r., but for a morefundamental reason: They had character. Nelson--who in 1945 won a record 11straight events--was the sport's consummate gentleman.
Lord Byron, to usehis most unfitting nickname, was a deeply religious man who in retirement led asimple life on a working ranch in Texas. But unlike Hogan, his formercaddie-yard rival, he made himself available to golfers and taught what heknew, most notably to Ken Venturi and Tom Watson, who learned from Nelson toslow down and breathe deeply while walking to the ball. Generations of teachershave been fixated on Hogan's odd, flat, handsy swing, but Nelson was the trueprogenitor of the modern golf swing: upright, simple, beautifully balanced,with few moving parts. You see echoes of Nelson's action every time Tiger Woodsmakes a swing.
He had been anhonored ancient for decades but remained relevant all the while. At the Masterseach April, Woods would always make it a point to spend time with Nelson. TomLehman, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain this year, sought advice and Biblicalinspiration from Nelson. Lehman pulled out of a tournament in England to attendNelson's funeral, where he was joined by dozens of other players, retired andactive.
When a playerreceived a handwritten note, adorned with that elegant signature, asking him tocome play in the Byron Nelson Classic, it was almost impossible to say no. In1996 Nelson requested the presence of Phil Mickelson, who was supposed to go ona vacation with his then fiancée, Amy. Mickelson played--and won. Last Fridaythe Mickelsons were among the 2,220 mourners at Nelson's funeral. "Amy andI are so sorry for [Nelson's widow] Peggy, but so happy for the great life ofByron Nelson," Mickelson said. "It should be an example for all golfersand for us all."
To TV watchers ofa certain age, Nelson was Johnny Miller before there was a Johnny Miller,explaining the intricacies of the game as a commentator in the years whenArnold Palmer, slashing away, was making golf look more brawny than brainy.Byron Nelson never rushed a word, just as he never rushed a swing, or anythingelse in his graceful life.