Why Byron Nelson was one of those players who you’d meet and never forget
It’s cool that the players, most of them far too young to have known the man, call the Dallas stop the Byron Nelson. Here we cite officialdom: It’s the AT&T Byron Nelson at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas, per PGATour.com. Somebody has to pay the bills. (You get $1.46 million for winning and $17,000 for making the cut and finishing last.) Somebody has to provide the track, outside Dallas. (It’s a ClubCorp course, designed by Tom Weiskopf.) But the caddie shorthand has always been this:
“You guys playing Byron Nelson?”
“If he gets in.”
It’s neat to think that Tiger Woods knew Byron Nelson. Knew him well. Tiger won the ’97 Masters. His next tournament was Byron Nelson. He won that, too, Byron, the man, on hand to greet him.
The following April, Tiger treated all the old Masters champs — Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and the others — to Tuesday supper in the Augusta National clubhouse. Burger Nite, on Tiger. Byron was there, everybody in green.
Nelson was at the dinner again in 1999, 2000, ’01, ‘02, ‘03, ’04 and one last time in ’05. In all those years, he was the dinner’s de facto master of ceremonies. He died in 2006, at 94. Tiger’s father, Earl, died the same year.
Nelson was courtly. That was his thing, or one of his things. Nobody would call Tiger courtly. He’s intense, driven, relentless, big. Everybody’s different. Tiger liked hearing the stories. He liked hearing how things were, back in the day.
Tiger, all golf fans know, is not playing this week at the Nelson and he won’t be playing next week, at the PGA Championship at Kiawah. Nobody wants to say this, because it’s too depressing to consider, but after what Woods endured in his Feb. 23 early-morning, single-vehicle car crash, it’s going to be a long road to just playing in a tournament again, let alone winning one. A body can only take so much. A head, too.
Nelson won two PGA Championships, at match play. Too bad for Tiger the PGA of America decided, after the 1957 tournament, to play the PGA at stroke play. Woods is, by far, the greatest match-play golfer ever. (It’s an opinion, though I bet Brandel could prove it.) Still, when Woods won the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, noted Midwestern sweat box, that was his 13th major title and his fourth PGA win. He won by a shot over Sergio Garcia in 1999. He won after a three-hole playoff with Bob May in 2000. He won by five shots over Shaun Micheel in 2006. And he won by two shots over Woody Austin in 2007.
Thirteen majors. In one decade. By age 32.
I figured he could get to 19 professional major titles without ever winning another U.S. Open (tough on his driving game) or British Open (slow greens, fluky weather — not his thing). But you had to think he’d always know how to play and win Augusta. As for the PGA, in the appalling heat of mid-August, Tiger’s attitude was the best: bring it on. Hot suited him. No golfer was fitter than Tiger. Plus, Stevie was packing all those fancy hydration drinks.
Then everything changed, and the PGA Championship’s place on the calendar was just part of it. Tiger’s life, the parts we know about, has been tournament golf. Nobody in professional golf has ever retreated from public view when not playing as Tiger has.
Byron was a club pro. Not always in the stand-behind-the-counter sense, though he was that guy, too. At different times, with different titles, Nelson was the pro at Texarkana Country Club, in Arkansas; Ridgewood Country Club, in New Jersey; Reading Country Club, in Pennsylvania; and Inverness Club, in Ohio.
That’s a life that Tiger does not know, not from his side of the counter, not in a first-person way. Nothing wrong with that. Golf got big. Today, you can make a great living playing. Or teaching. Or managing the shop and the staff. Nelson, at different times, did all three.
Every year, there will be fewer players playing the Nelson who knew the man. That’s OK. That’s the march of time. Jordan Spieth knew Nelson. He met him, anyway. I did, too. (“Mr. Nelson, I’d like you to meet my caddie, Michael Bamberger.” Thursday, May 9, 1985, 1st tee, Los Colinas Sports Club, first round, Byron Nelson Golf Classic. My boss was Al Geiberger. True gent.) Byron was one of those people, one of those legends: you meet, it’s engraved forever.
The PGA Championship has a dinner for former winners. Someday, you hope, Tiger will be back at it, whether he’s playing in the event or not, sitting with young Collin Morikawa, telling him about Nelson, about what it was like to be in his presence. Tiger can talk about the man’s swing, his era, his aura, whatever he wishes. You hope that happens. It would be good for everybody.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com.