When golfers talk about the greatest professional players ever, usually names like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Sam Snead, and Tiger Woods come to mind. Yet my fondest personal memories center around Byron Nelson, who won his first Masters title long ago, in 1937.
Why do I hold Nelson in highest esteem? Because I had three encounters with him personally, and watched him illustrate what I call “championship communication.” He was very kind to me, a stranger.
The first time I watched Nelson was when he gave an exhibition in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, near my home town of Columbia. Not only did he amaze us with his shots, he was friendly with his playing partners, the gallery, and teenagers, including me. Nelson had won two Masters, two PGAs, the U.S. Open, and the British Open–yet he still seemed like “one of us.”
The second time was more exciting. Following Arnold Palmer in a practice round at the Masters, I spotted Byron Nelson standing by the twelfth tee. Knowing I might never get the chance again, I introduced myself, then said: “I watched you play an exhibition in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and soon afterward I got my first set of irons–a Byron Nelson set.” That prompted him to talk about golf clubs, and then he began to reminisce about his Masters career.
“Right here at ‘Amen Corner’ was where I really won the tournament,” he explained, recalling every shot from decades ago.We talked for more than ten minutes. Nelson was patient, friendly,and a good listener.
The third time we made contact was through the mail. I had written an article about Byron Nelson for a golf magazine, so I sent him a copy. The article mentioned how impressed I had been with “Lord Byron” on the two occasions described above. I didn’t expect a reply. After all, Byron Nelson still heard from people around the world, and stayed busy promoting his annual tournament and his favorite charitable causes.
Yet a couple of weeks later, my mailbox contained a handwritten message from Roanoke, Texas, where the 92 year old Byron Nelson lived many years as a rancher. He said: “How nice of you to be so kind in your writing.” He mentioned his faith and his determination to lead a good life. Next: “I am going to the PGA at Rochester tomorrow. Be nice to see some old and new friends.” He signed,
“Thank you, Byron.”
I’ll keep that message forever.
To me, Byron Nelson was the ideal “championship communicator.” He reached the top of the sports world–winning 11 tournaments in a row and 18 total in 1945–but he never considered himself greater than anyone else. He communicated with everyone humbly and receptively.
When Nelson died in 2006 , golf writer Grant Boone noted: “Wherever the debate over which golfer is the best of all time ends, Byron Nelson was the game’s finest man, hands down.”
Rudyard Kipling would have wanted to meet Byron, because Nelson embodied a line from Kipling’s timeless poem “If”–the one that talked about walking with kings but not losing the common touch.
So however high you get professionally, follow “Iron Byron’s” example. Keep the common touch.
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