Over the years, as one address book and its dog-eared pages would yield to a fresh one, I never failed to smile while copying one particular name and number among friends, family and sources. Although he was the most available and courteous of sports legends, reachable by anyone with a phone, there was something cool about having Byron Nelson's number. He was, after all, the only person in my book who had won 52 PGA Tour titles, including 11 tournaments in a row (and 18 overall) in 1945.
"You call me anytime," he would invariably say as an illuminating conversation came to a close, and I know I wasn't the only reporter who heard those same words.
Nelson, who died at his home on Tuesday at age 94, was a link to another era of golf, one brimming with good stories, bad bounces and long (automobile) drives. He is the last of American golf's great triumvirate born in 1912 to pass away, Ben Hogan having died in 1997 and Sam Snead in 2002. If Hogan could be solitary and Snead salty, Nelson was as solid as the furniture he crafted in his woodworking shop. The Hogan mystique produced a reverence among fans who worshipped his dogged talent; Snead's athleticism and competitive longevity prompted a kind of awe; Nelson, as both dominant golfer and gentle man, commanded a simple respect.
Nelson's life is often compressed into a recollection of his superb 1945 season, which is appropriate but also ironic. Nelson himself was proudest of what he did with his generous gift of years, which he lived out with an exemplary contentedness and kindness. For decades he was the face and heart of the PGA Tour stop in the Dallas area, current pros and troubled kids benefiting from his presence.
This elder statesman would recite how he was lucky even to have made it to 40, much less 90 -- given up for dead during a difficult delivery when he was born; being bitten by a rabid dog and contracting typhoid fever as a boy; never being injured in a car crash on some lonely blue highway, when a wound of any significance might have been fatal because his blood clotted five times more slowly than normal.
Few athletes have ever performed such glories and walked away from them so seamlessly, in Nelson's case, to a ranch where he counted cattle and turkeys instead of strokes. If Nelson had regrets about cutting short his career -- after the 1946 season, when he was 34 -- he never voiced them. He certainly could say he had been there and done that.
"The best golf is the easiest golf," Nelson wrote in the introduction to his 1946 instruction book "Winning Golf." His swing, revolutionary for the time with its aggressive leg action and extended path down the target line, made Nelson a remarkably accurate ball striker (curiously, though, he told fellow Texan Don January he also would shank a shot about once every 72 holes). But his customary play gave him some wiggle room for the odd stray: 2-woods that he controlled like pitches; putts that defied the bumpy surfaces and dropped when they had to; an attitude that carried him to a pinnacle few golfers have visited. When a young Tom Watson was having trouble learning how to close out tournaments and win in the mid-1970s, he wisely took up Nelson's offer of help, and after he became Lord Byron's friend, developed into one of his era's greatest players.
Nelson was a plain-spoken man, never more elegantly so than when he talked about his motivation and mind-set to author Al Barkow in "Gettin' to the Dance Floor": "Is there a psychology for winning? I don't understand the psychological function of the human mind sufficiently to answer that very well, except to say that winners are different. They're a different breed of cat."
To go with the soul of a champion, Nelson had the eyes of a hawk -- vision so keen, an army artillery instructor during World War II asked him to help the soldiers learn to judge distances. Nelson's "free bleeding" kept him out of military service, but he crisscrossed the country doing exhibitions to raise money for the war effort, often with his best friend and fellow golfer, Harold (Jug) McSpaden, who was ruled 4-F for the war because of severe hay fever and sinusitis.
Then, in 1945, with the pro tour building back to normal, Nelson ruled it as no one ever has -- on ragged courses for tiny purses, in 11 states and two provinces, with Hogan and Snead around more than people think, always with the motivation to sock away enough money to buy that ranch. And when he had, he took his leave.
"I'd achieved all my goals and then some, and the traveling was getting pretty old," Nelson wrote in his autobiography, "How I Played The Game." "I wanted to settle down and do something different with my life. I'd been doing nothing but golf since I was 20, and it's a hard life in many ways, even though it has its exciting and glamorous aspects -- especially if you're playing well. But 14 years was enough."
He got off the tour but stayed in the game, his life as straight as those fairway woods he boomed off bare lies. In other ways, for many years, the wins kept coming.
Bill Fields is a senior editor for Golf World magazine.