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Nelson About to Put a 94 on His Scorecard

February 01, 2006|THOMAS BONK

Byron Nelson has just finished making a mahogany table in his woodshop. He plans to make more, once he completes the wooden clock frames and bases that he gives to his friends as gifts. He says he has plenty of friends, more than he can count. "I feel that I'm the most fortunate man I know," Nelson says. "Everybody likes me, everybody thinks I'm OK. They're probably thinking I'm better than I am, but I do know for sure, I was born under a lucky star."

On Saturday, it will be 94 years since that star passed over his head. Golf's greatest living legend is going to celebrate his birthday at home on his ranch in Roanoke, Texas, a 551-acre spread that he bought in 1946 and from which he has never moved.

He isn't sure what his wife, Peggy, is going to make for his birthday dinner, but he hopes there's a salad course, maybe even his favorite chopped salad, because if there's one thing Nelson likes, it involves lettuce.

"I never saw a bad salad," he says.

It's good to know these are still the salad days for Nelson.

He keeps his hands full of golf. For the last 38 years, he has given his name, his time and his energy to a golf tournament on the PGA Tour, the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. So far, it has raised more than $88 million for local charities.

How much of that total is accounted for by Nelson's sheer presence we do not know, but it's probably considerable. He has cast a long shadow over golf for more than 70 years, since he turned pro in 1932.

Nelson won 52 tournaments, five of them majors. He won the Masters in 1937, only the fourth time it was played, and won it again in 1942. He won the 1939 U.S. Open, and the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945, which was his greatest season.

Nelson became locked in golf's lore in 1945, when he won 11 consecutive tournaments and 18 in all. No one else has come close to either record, not that it matters much to Nelson, who still closely follows the pro game, even though he's as busy as he wants to be.

He spends most of his time at his ranch, which he bought with his golf earnings. He didn't even have a telephone when he moved in, and he still gets his drinking water from a 664-foot-deep well.

Nelson doesn't get around the place the way he used to. He needs an oxygen tank, and walking unassisted is difficult. So he has two "walking sticks," as he calls them, and also something like a chair with wheels to get him around the house and to help him at church.

The Nelsons attend the Church of Christ in North Richland Hills twice a week, on Sunday morning and on Wednesday night. Peggy takes part in the women's Bible class and also teaches the Bible to third-grade boys.

Nelson believes in staying active. He enjoys pointing out that when he quit playing the pro tour in 1947, he weighed 180 and that he weighs 179 now. He squeezes his own carrot juice. He and Peggy split a cup of coffee every morning.

Good genes have helped him lead a long life too, Nelson says. His 86-year-old sister lives in nearby Denton. His mother's father, M.F. Allen, died at 94. The maternal grandfather of his mother died while he on his way to visit a neighbor. He was riding a horse. He was 98.

"So I have that in my background," Nelson says.

And then there is golf, something Nelson discovered after noticing that some of his friends at school in Fort Worth had pocket money. He asked them where they got it. Over at Glen Garden, a golf course, they said. They were caddies.

"So I high-tailed it over there," he says. "I didn't know there was such a thing as golf until I went over there."

It was 1927. Nelson was 15.

After church on Saturdays and Sundays, he cleaned other people's clubs and made sure they were put away. Whatever he earned went toward the family finances. His father, John, had left school after the fourth grade to get a job because both of his parents had died, and was working in a feed store. There is no trace of regret when Nelson retraces his youth. Other people started out with tough lives too, he reasons. And besides, his turned out just fine.

The kid who was there and watched Walter Hagen beat Al Espinosa in the semifinals of the 1927 PGA Championship at Cedar Crest Country Club in Dallas grew up to enjoy a lifetime in golf that spans virtually all the modern generations of the sport, from Bobby Jones and Hagen and Gene Sarazen to Ben Hogan and on. He counts Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson among his pals.

They won't be at his birthday party, though. Woods is in Dubai, and Mickelson is in Phoenix, both playing tournaments. The Nelsons invited six friends and neighbors to come over Saturday for the big celebration. For dessert, it's either going to be pie or coconut cake.

Nelson says he has much to be thankful for, his 94th birthday only days away.

"I've eaten right and tried to be a good person, a good person of the good Lord," he says. "And I'm happy."

That was one lucky star, all right.

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