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For winners of the AT&T Byron Nelson, a chance to meet the tournament namesake was the biggest reward

On so many fronts it was an overdue celebration when 1,300 people jammed into a Dallas banquet hall on April 23, 1968, to pay tribute to Byron Nelson.

After all, Lord Byron had pretty much retired 22 years earlier – as an in-his-prime 34-year-old, by the way. Oh, he played the occasional tournament here and there, just 50 of them from 1947-66, but on that night in 1968 when they feted him, it had been 17 years since Nelson had recorded the last of his 52 PGA TOUR wins.

Yet the banquet hall was overflowing with Hollywood names (Bob Hope) to TV sports personalities (Chris Schenkel) to the best players in the game (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Sam Snead, Ken Venturi).

What brought them there wasn’t his .229 winning percentage between 1935-46 (51 wins in 223 starts), nor the 11 straight victories during his 18-win record-setting season in 1945. Instead, admirers came to pay tribute to the first golfer to have a PGA TOUR tournament named after him.

During what would’ve been AT&T Byron Nelson week, PGATOUR.COM is celebrating the tournament’s legendary namesake and his impact on golf with a series of stories.

• His impact on my life and career, by Tom Watson
• His impact on the modern golf swing

Stories to come include his charitable impact in conjunction with the Salesmanship Club; and his impact on the PGA TOUR’s record book.

The 1968 Byron Nelson Golf Classic at Preston Trail Golf Club was worthy of a celebration, or so organizers felt, and apparently every name of note in the game agreed, because they were all there. The most impressive guest being 55-year-old Ben Hogan, who may not have shared the warmest relationship with his colleague from the Glen Garden CC caddie barn in Fort Worth, but he surely occupied a seat that afforded him the most unique view of Nelson’s life.

“Byron isn’t the richest man in the world,” Hogan told that sell-out crowd. “But I think his life has been fulfilled and that’s the reason he’s so humbled by this turnout tonight.”

Hogan’s words resonated profoundly. But more than that, they seemed to set a tone that would echo for decades thereafter, because winner after winner after winner of the tournament named for Byron Nelson embraced his opportunity to share the stage with one of the game’s greatest legends. All of them shared a common denominator – they were blown away by the humility, grace, and faith that defined the Lord Byron.

“He sat there on the deck (of the clubhouse) near the scoring area every round of every year,” said 2007 winner Scott Verplank. “But the thing was, Byron didn’t sit there because he wanted to be seen, he sat there because he wanted to see you.”

In the mid-1980s, a talented golfer out of Zimbabwe, Nick Price, had established himself as a world-class pro with an uncanny ball-striking touch that matched his impeccable demeanor, but he was one in search of that ability to finish things off. Only one PGA TOUR win was on Price’s resume and everyone knew the talent was there for far more.

“One year (at the Nelson) in the third round I drove it great, hit it beautifully, but I was in the third-to-last group and I just couldn’t buy a putt,” said Price. “I went right to the putting green after my round and around this time Byron (who was announcing for ABC) came down from the tower and came right over to see me.

“He asked if he could talk to me and I had huge respect for him as a gentleman, so we went downstairs to the locker room where they had an indoor pool, a nice quiet place, and we just talked for about 75 minutes.

“It wasn’t him telling me what to do, it was just him explaining the game, making you feel so at ease. This meant the absolute world to me, that he was putting his feelings out there.”

In 1991, Price won the Nelson, his second PGA TOUR triumph. It had been 179 starts since his breakthrough win at the World Series of Golf in 1983, and he was consumed by joy. Price was also touched by the gentle smile offered by Lord Byron, who leaned into him at the trophy celebration and in his iconic soft voice said: “Now, you’ve figured it out.”

Let the record show that Nelson was right – Price would win 13 times in his next 76 PGA TOUR starts, including three major championships during a stretch when he was the No. 1 player in the world.

“Absolutely no doubt that he helped me,” said Price. “He was amazing. All these years later, thinking of him brings a tear to my eye.”

Price is not alone. For while in our world we spend countless hours debating who is better than whom and whose resume is the best, there is one discussion that has already been decided: Byron Nelson is the finest gentleman the game of golf has ever known.

You felt blessed to have one tie-in to Nelson, but Crenshaw had two. Like Byron, he was a Texan and he was also connected to famed golf instructor Harvey Penick. “That’s how I met Byron, when I was 17, through Harvey. From there on, whenever I met Byron, he would always say, ‘Please tell Harvey I said hello.’ ”

Well established in his career by 1983, Crenshaw had played nicely at the Nelson – a second, two fifths, a T-12 – but never a win. But in his 10th try, Crenshaw prevailed, his final-round 66 allowing him to overcome a three-stroke deficit and leapfrog Lanny Wadkins, Hal Sutton and Tom Purtzer.

“Byron wasn’t shy, but he was so giving of himself, so dedicated to his wife and his faith,” Crenshaw said. “But he never thrust it at you, he quietly offered it, in a graceful manner.”

Seven-and-a-half years removed from his only PGA TOUR win, Price finally brought his ball-striking genius to the finish line – and against a stellar lineup, too. His closing 66 was one better than Craig Stadler and other marquee names followed closely – Raymond Floyd, Corey Pavin, Hal Sutton, Scott Simpson, Lanny Wadkins, and Tom Kite.

But nearly 30 years later, what touches Price are memories of Nelson’s ability to see a bigger picture than the insular world in which most golfers operated. Anyone who knew the difference between a bogey and a birdie understood Price could ball-strike it like few others, but Nelson had different parameters.

“I was proud that Byron respected how I conducted myself on the golf course,” Price said. “That was important to him. He told you that being a golfer wasn’t just hitting the ball and putting down a score. It was the way you treated people, the empathy you had for people, it was all-encompassing.”

So many layers of flavor from this win leave a sweet taste in Brown’s mouth. The fact that he’s a proud native of Texas, which arguably has produced the grandest list of golf champions. The fact that it came during what was his most successful PGA TOUR season. The fact that he prevailed in a one-hole playoff against a heralded trio – Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd and Bruce Lietzke – and was so warmly embraced by them.

“I was very good friends with Raymond,” Brown said. “And Ben and Bruce (native Texans) told me how special this win was going to be.”

Euphoric, all of that, but very tiring, too, given that rain had shortened the tournament to 54 holes and the four players had to sit around for four hours late Sunday to conduct the playoff. (Brown made birdie at the par-3 17th.) The winner simply didn’t think it could get any better, until it came for the trophy presentation and Mr. Nelson eased into the picture.

Brown felt the man’s presence, but what made an impact on him was Charles Brown’s reaction: “My father was in awe. When he first saw Mr. Nelson (at the tournament) he said, ‘That’s the man right there.’ ”

A prized possession of Brown’s is a picture he has of himself; his father, Charles; and Nelson.

Billy Ray Brown quickly came to appreciate the Nelson legacy that his father was so enamored with. “To have my name on his trophy, it’s front and center in my house,” said Brown. “In my opinion, knowing the single-mindedness that young golfers have, I look at Byron and know that his priorities were in line and that golf was down the list a little.”

When you’re mentored by a former U.S. Open champion, as Cook was by Ken Venturi, you’re blessed. But when your mentor’s mentor is Byron Nelson, “well, that took it to a whole new level,” said Cook, who won 11 times on the PGA TOUR and was a mainstay at Nelson’s tournament.

On those times when Cook sat and talked with Nelson, he was thrilled to hear validation for all that Venturi had instructed. “From the time I was 14, I soaked in everything Mr. Venuri told me,” Cook said. “To have Mr. Nelson tell me things that he had told Venturi years earlier was such a gift.”

But Nelson did more than offer feedback on the golf swing; he showed how a life of dignity and faith should be lived.

“You always got nice notes from him and you saw in him how much character he had and how to treat people with respect,” said Cook.

Trailing Fred Couples by four entering Sunday’s final round, Cook posted a sterling 65 and in his 14th trip to the Nelson, the walk up those clubhouse steps to sign his card and shake the host’s hands was finally a victorious one.

“When Mr. Nelson got up to greet me, I got all choked up,” said Cook. “It was really special.”

“After that win, Byron would send me notes just to say, ‘nice playing,’ or something like that. I keep them in my desk at home. Those things are always going to matter to me.”

Roberts trailed Tiger Woods by four through 36 holes, but shot 62-68 on the weekend, then beat Steve Pate in a playoff. At 43, it was the sixth of his eight career wins, but most memorable was a scene that played out at the trophy presentation.

“My father (Hugh, who was 83) came to some of my other tournaments, but this was the only time he saw me win,” said Roberts. “He was a postman in Memphis, a very reserved man, but what I always think about is how nervous he was around Mr. Nelson. He just couldn’t get couldn’t a word out.”

But Roberts’ prized possession is something given to players who attended services for Nelson when he died in September 2006. “It was a cross he had carved out of a deer’s antler,” said Roberts.

“There was an amazing aura to him. He was obviously very strong in his faith and it was like God poured through him when you talked to him. With this unique time on earth, we need him more than ever.”

At a time in his career when Purdy was playing nicely, the inability to close the door haunted him. For that reason, few observers gave him serious thought when he started the fourth round two shots off the lead and in the third-to-last group.

“But it was amazing; I played flawless golf that day,” said Purdy, who hit all 18 greens, shot 5-under 65, and was offered the chance to sit with Nelson while he waited to see if anyone in the final two groups could pull even or surpass his 15-under 265 total. (They did not, and Purdy recorded his only PGA TOUR win.)

“It was one of the highlights to my life, to sit there and talk with Mr. Nelson and his wife, Peggy. At one point, I’ll never forget him saying, ‘Ted, you didn’t have a bogey today.’ I thanked him for noting that, then he said, ‘I don’t think I ever played a round without making at least one bogey.’

“I smiled and remember thinking that I’m pretty sure Byron Nelson played quite a few rounds without making a bogey, but that was his humility, he was trying to make you feel good.”

Nelson succeeded, because Purdy confirms he never felt better about his golf and never as proud as he did while sitting next to Nelson.

Perhaps no one can speak to the essence of Nelson’s humility and love of the PGA TOUR more than Scott Verplank. His story would be considered a fantasy-writer’s product, only it’s true.

Upon hearing that this young man from W.T. White High School in Dallas was playing impressive golf, Nelson extended an invitation to come hit balls at Preston Trail. A few swings into the session, Verplank was asked to stop by the head professional, who explained to Nelson that the club’s age limit had been violated. Imagine, reprimanding Byron Nelson.

Not too many years later, Verplank was back on the range in front of Nelson, this time as a competitor in the man’s tournament. A dream come true, for this tournament years earlier had ignited Verplank’s passion in the game.

“I worked the tournament (as a standard-bearer), carrying a sign for Bobby Clampett and Jodie Mudd when I was 12 or 13,” said Verplank. “My mother (Betty) was a scorer.” In future years, Verplank would attend the tournament and walk all 18 holes watching Tom Watson, knowing Watson was mentored by Nelson.

Saturday of the Nelson was a happening. “The Salesmanship Club always pushed the envelope and did a great job. Crowds were enormous. It was Phoenix before Phoenix,” said Verplank.

For 20 years, Verplank was a staple at his hometown tournament. He had struggled early on, but eventually got comfortable at the TPC Four Seasons Resort – a playoff loss in 2001 and a trio of top-six finishes.

Then in 2007, eight months after Lord Byron’s death, Verplank won the Nelson in his 21st try. “Fitting, I guess, in a way, that I would win that year,” said Verplank, who embraced Nelson’s wife, Peggy, in an emotional scene.

“It was meant to be,” Verplank told her and Peggy Nelson agreed. “Byron,” she told him, “wanted you to win.”

In that case, Nelson got what he wanted. But only after he had given everything he had to give.

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World news – US – Greeted by golf’s finest gentleman

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