When the AT&T Byron Nelson starts on May 12 at TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, Texas, it will feature seven players presently in the top 20 of the Official Golf World Ranking, led by Masters champion and world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler of nearby Highland Park. Another Texas favorite, No. 9-ranked Jordan Spieth, will be there, as will Dustin Johnson (10), Sam Burns (11), Louis Oosthuizen (15), Joaquin Niemann (16) and Brooks Koepka (17).
This is welcome news for the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, the tournament’s longtime host. In recent years, the Nelson has fallen off of a cliff in terms of prestige. Part is due to the 15½ years that has elapsed since its beloved namesake passed away. At one time, the Nelson attracted some of the strongest non-major fields every year. Lately, however, few stars have showed up, and attendance has plummeted as the venue bounced from TPC Four Seasons to Trinity Forest to its current home at Craig Ranch.
Assembling a good field is not a problem unique to the Nelson. Top players are more selective than ever in choosing non-major tournaments. “They must play in the World Golf Championships, the four major championships, the Players and before long, the schedule gets congested for a lot of these players,” four-time Nelson winner Tom Watson observed in a recent interview, noting that in his day there was “a lot less clutter” on the schedule.
Despite its recent decline, the Nelson is in no danger of going away.
Byron Nelson was the first player to lend his name to a regular PGA Tour event. He was born in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1912 – the same year as rivals Ben Hogan and Sam Snead – to a devoutly religious family of modest means. Christian faith would be the cornerstone of his long life. The family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, when Nelson was 11. Soon thereafter, he started caddying at Glen Garden Country Club and quickly became proficient as a player. As a 14-year-old, he beat Hogan in a local caddie tournament.
Nelson turned pro in 1932 and held a number of club jobs as he developed an impressive playing résumé. He won the Masters in 1937, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940. Shortly after Nelson won the Masters again in 1942, tournament golf was almost completely shut down because of World War II. Because of a blood clotting disorder, Nelson was ineligible for military service. While Hogan, Snead, and most able-bodied pros were in uniform, Nelson aided the war effort by playing hundreds of exhibitions to sell war bonds and raise money for wartime charities. Charity would become one of his hallmarks.
By mid-1944, the tide of the war had turned in the Allies’ favor, allowing the PGA Tour to resume operations. Nelson embarked on the greatest winning streak the game has ever known. From 1944 to 1946, Nelson won 33 of the 75 tournaments he entered, was second 16 times and only once finished outside the top-10.
In 1945, he won 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row, records that will likely never be matched. Detractors claim Nelson faced watered-down competition. However, both Snead and Hogan returned to play in 1945, and both competed in five of the events Nelson won. In fact, when Nelson did not win, Snead or Hogan usually did – Snead four times in 1945, Hogan five. Moreover, the quality of competition had nothing to do with Nelson’s otherworldly 1945 stroke average, 68.34, a record that stood until broken by Tiger Woods in 2000.
Early into his 11-tournament win streak, Nelson’s wife, Louise, whom he met in Sunday school and married in 1934, hinted that his playing days were numbered and that they soon would retire to a ranch. “He’ll retire at the right time, entering a few tournaments for fun afterwards,” she was quoted by the Associated Press in April 1945.
Outwardly, Nelson was amiable, but internally the pressure of competition was tearing at the insides of his powerful 6-foot-1 frame. The night before his win over Hogan in an 18-hole playoff at the 1942 Masters, Nelson vomited from tension. He suffered back pain related to neuritis. On May 2, 1946, the Denton Record-Chronicle announced Nelson’s “purchase of the 630-acre Skyline Ranch near Roanoke in Denton county [sic], where he will make his permanent home after he gets possession Sept. 1.”
Louise insisted they purchase the ranch all-cash so as not to dip into their savings. Thus, Nelson hit the road and won in Houston and Columbus, Ohio. His last 1946 win was in July at the Chicago Victory National Open, beating Jug McSpaden by two strokes. In August, he lost to Porky Oliver in the match-play quarterfinals of the PGA Championship.
At the end of September, the Denton Record-Chronicle reported, “Mr. and Mrs. Byron Nelson, owners of the Fairway Ranch at Roanoke, were spotlighted in their place in the rodeo stands” at the Denton County Fair. The Nelsons had followed through with their plans. Nelson played in the Fort Worth Open in early October and then forever departed the full-time tour grind. He and Louise would not have any children, attributable to Byron’s childhood bout with typhoid fever that nearly killed him. He devoted the rest of his life to his wife, their ranch, his church and charity.
“I never drank, smoked, never chased women,” Nelson answered when asked about his longevity. “And I’ve never had a sitting-down job in my life.”
But Nelson never entirely left the scene. Six months into his retirement, he contended at the 1947 Masters, finishing second to Jimmy Demaret. He competed every year at Augusta through 1966 (in 1965, when he was 53, he tied for 15th). In 1951, needing some money, Nelson booked a lengthy exhibition tour. Before the start of it, he won the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, which would be his last PGA Tour victory. The junket was profitable. With his competitive urge quelled and some cash, Nelson returned to his ranch.
In 1955, he played in the Crosby with his friend Eddie Lowery as his amateur partner. In the opening round, Nelson shot 70. According to a 1979 Sports Illustrated article, later in the tournament Nelson was in a greenside bunker while Lowery had a short birdie putt. Nelson picked up his ball. Lowery told him he was only four shots out of the lead in the pro competition. “I’m here for fun,” Nelson replied. “I’m not playing for money.” After the Nelson-Lowery team won the pro-am portion, Nelson donated his $1,500 winnings to Bing Crosby’s charities.
In the summer of 1955, Byron and Louise traveled to Europe for a vacation. Nelson long expressed a desire to return to the Open Championship, where he tied for fifth in 1937 in his only previous venture to Great Britain. Winning the Open would have given him the career professional Grand Slam to join at the time only Hogan and Gene Sarazen, but he did not contend at St. Andrews, finishing 32nd. However, the following week, he was victorious at the French Open, his last professional win. Over the ensuing years, Nelson stayed active, mentoring players such as Ken Venturi and Marty Fleckman, serving on corporate and charity boards, and providing golf commentary for ABC Sports.
Starting in 1956, tournaments were held in Dallas at the Oak Cliff Country Club. Usually, they were sleepy affairs. Plagued by poor attendance as a result of its proximity to the Colonial National Invitation in nearby Fort Worth, the Dallas stop was dropped from the 1965 schedule, though it returned in 1966 and 1967. In December 1967, the Associated Press reported the Greater Dallas Open had been renamed the Byron Nelson Golf Classic “as a tribute to the Roanoke gentleman farmer.” Until then, tour stops had been named for celebrities Crosby and Bob Hope, but the Nelson was the first regular event named after a golfer.
Charles Coody, the 1971 Masters champion and a north Texan, won the 1964 Dallas Open Invitational for his first tour victory and later had success at the Nelson, though he never won. “In 1968, the Salesmanship Club in Dallas, which is a club of the movers and shakers, solicited Mr. Nelson to put his name on the tournament so they could raise money for different charities there in the Dallas area,” Coody said recently. “And, of course, he was all for that. Then the Nelson became a much bigger tournament.”
The first Byron Nelson Golf Classic was held in 1968 at Preston Trail Golf Club on a course co-designed by Nelson. The Big Three (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player) led a strong field after skipping the Dallas Open in 1967. Miller Barber won. In 1970, Nicklaus beat Palmer in a playoff, and repeated in 1971. In addition to Nicklaus, Hall of Famers who won at Preston Trail were Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lanny Wadkins.
No player was more closely identified with the Nelson tournament – and Byron Nelson personally – than Watson. In the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Watson was the 54-hole leader. After he shot 79 on Sunday, Nelson approached and offered to help with his game. Watson took Nelson up on his offer, and the two became close friends. Watson went on to win eight majors. He played the Nelson 28 consecutive years from 1972 to 1999 and won four times, including three in a row from 1978 to ’80 (in 1981, he lost in a playoff to Bruce Lietzke).
Nelson was not just a figurehead but worked to promote his tournament, sending handwritten notes to players inviting them to compete. “Byron had a huge influence on the players who played in his tournament when he was alive,” Watson said. “Players played in his tournament out of respect for Byron Nelson, without a doubt.”
Asked for his favorite Nelson memory, Watson did not talk about his wins but mentioned a junior clinic he gave at Preston Trail. “I started to do my shtick, and Byron was standing there watching me,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to ask Mr. Nelson here to hit three drivers off the ground, without a tee. I want him to hook one; I want him to fade one; I want him to hit one dead straight.” Nelson proceeded to do exactly as Watson commanded. “He turned around with a big grin on his face. The parents were applauding and going bananas. They loved it. And he loved it, too, because Byron loved to show off his skills. He was somewhat of a ham.”
In 1983, the Nelson relocated to the Las Colinas Sports Club in Irving, Texas, in part because women were barred from membership at Preston Trail. The move was not so much motivated by gender-equality concerns as the fact there were no restrooms for women at Preston Trail – players’ wives and female volunteers unhappily used portable facilities outside the clubhouse. Las Colinas courses at the Four Seasons resort would be the Nelson’s home for the next 35 years. From 1983 to 2006, future Hall of Famers Fred Couples, Payne Stewart, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Price, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh won.
Byron Nelson continued to be a regular presence. “We used to have a champions dinner at the Byron Nelson,” 1969 Nelson winner Bruce Devlin recalled recently. “It was pretty nice to have all the guys that had won before, have Byron Nelson there, and all the guys from the committee that raised all the money. Mr. Nelson was just the sweetest man. I don’t know if a person ever said a nasty word about him.”
In 2006, Nelson was on hand to present the trophy to Brett Wetterich. By then, Nelson required oxygen and had difficulty walking. He died four months later, on September 26, 2006, at age 94. “I never drank, smoked, never chased women,” Nelson answered when asked about his longevity. “And I’ve never had a sitting-down job in my life.”
He posthumously was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Congress, for distinguished achievements and contributions.
The tournament has not been the same since Nelson died.
“For decades, the biggest names and best players were regulars at this tournament, lured by handwritten notes from its beloved namesake or the chance to chat with one of golf’s great champions,” The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on the eve of the 2010 edition. “The field included six of the top 10 players in the world as recently as 2005. Nelson died a year later, and the field has been slipping ever since.” The piece noted the highest-ranked player in the 2010 field was No. 17 Hunter Mahan.
The tournament left the Four Seasons after 2017, lured by the city of Dallas to the Trinity Forest Golf Club, where the Nelson hit rock-bottom. Opened in 2014, Trinity Forest was lauded for its environmental design and location (10 minutes from downtown Dallas). However, in 2018, the first year of Trinity Forest’s four-year contract, only four of the world’s top 20 were in the field. Aaron Wise, ranked No. 96, won. Attendance for the week was approximately 200,000 – 80,000 fewer than in the previous year at Las Colinas.
In 2019, Koepka and Patrick Reed were the only top-20 players. Sung Kang, ranked 138th, won. Only 144,000 spectators showed up, the result of the weak field and poor weather.
Although players praised the unique design of Trinity Forest, it did not provide a good experience for the spectators, who were required to park 10 miles from the course and shuttle in. Unlike woodsy Preston Trail and partially-shaded Las Colinas, Trinity Forest is built on a landfill and is treeless, offering no relief on the 90-degree days that are not uncommon in Dallas in May.
After the 2020 Nelson was canceled because of the pandemic, the sponsors were able to get out of the Trinity Forest contract. In 2021, the Nelson returned to a new location, TPC Craig Ranch in McKinney, with limited attendance. The field improved, with Jon Rahm, Koepka, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and Spieth present. The winner was another unheralded player, No. 137 K.H. Lee of South Korea.
Longtime Nelson tournament director Jon Drago says this year’s Nelson is the second of a five- year contract with TPC Craig Ranch. It likely is another stopover, as the Nelson widely is expected to move in the future to courses adjacent to the forthcoming PGA of America headquarters in nearby Frisco. Drago, however, insists there are no plans to move the tournament yet again.
Regardless of the field, the Dallas-based Momentous Institute, which provides educational and therapeutic services to emotionally troubled children, will come out ahead. It is the sole charitable beneficiary of the Nelson. Salesmanship Club members are expected to buy and sell sponsorships and tickets, and they typically come through. “This is our 54th tournament,” said Teri Isaacs, the executive director of the Salesmanship Club of Dallas. “We’ve raised $172 million in total.” Of that total, $78 million has been raised in the 16 editions since Nelson’s death.
Byron Nelson’s greatest legacy is that, from a charitable standpoint, year in and year out, the Nelson is one of the most successful stops on the PGA Tour. In 2022, with full attendance again, the tournament will have a strong field to enhance the Nelson legacy.
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