Last week, I enjoyed a trip to Dallas, and back down memory lane. I got to speak of my relationship with Byron Nelson, or Lord Byron as he was called (a moniker he always eschewed). The occasion was during the HP Byron Nelson Golf Classic where I was awarded the Byron Nelson Prize, sponsored by a great friend of both Byron and the tournament, T. Boone Pickens. Upon arrival, Hilary and I were met by Byron’s widow, Peggy, who has published a wonderful book about Byron and her joyous relationship with him, titled Life with Lord Byron. Our time together was most enjoyable with stories of her man and their wonderful times together. It was a great day for great causes.
I go back a long time with Byron, meeting him first at Doral Country Club in 1973 when he introduced himself to me on the 17th hole of the Pro-Am as he was doing his pre-tournament homework, studying the course for his job as ABC Golf’s premier analyst. He said he wanted to meet me, but it was I who was in awe. Here was the man who had won 19 tournaments…12 in a row in 1945…these numbers were by the old standards of winning is winning, no matter how large (or small) the purse. The new standards of a minimum purse made his “official” record wins for 1945, 18 wins and 11 in a row.
The next time Bryon and I met, our relationship truly began. After shooting a 79 in the final round of the 1974 National Open at Winged Foot, to finish 5th to Hale Irwin, I was sitting…very dejected… having a tasteless beer with friend John Mahaffey in the second-story locker room when in walked the man himself. The room fell silent with the words, “Tom, could I speak with you for just five minutes?” These words will always resonate as the true beginning of our relationship.
We moved to a private place as he continued, “Tom, I admire the way you play the game and how you conduct yourself on the course.” The previous day I had shot 69 to take the 54 hole lead. He continued, “Yesterday, you played beautiful golf with wonderful rhythm. Today your rhythm was just a little faster and you were slightly off. I like your golf swing and have this offer: If you would like some help, please be my guest at my ranch in Roanoke, Texas, and we will work together on your swing.” He mentioned his sweetheart wife, “Louis and I would love for you to come down anytime.”
What an offer! I knew of Byron’s storied help with Ken Venturi and here he was offering me the same!
That was 1974, but it took me until 1976 to take him up on his offer, as I didn’t want to ever offend my friend and teacher Stan Thirsk. But as I struggled with my game in 1976 the more I thought of Byron’s offer. I talked to Stan about it, and he encouraged me to give Byron a call.
Thus started a long and wonderful relationship with a man to whom I will always be indebted. I did learn a lot about my golf game…namely that I was never, ever remotely in his league as far as ball striking was concerned. But what I learned most was not about golf…no, it was the lessons I learned from the man about true goodness…of faith and character…of what being human is all about.
I spoke of his goodness at the Prize giving.
One early afternoon in the early 80’s, I received a call from an obviously distraught Byron. He told me he had come home from doing a morning chore to find Louise’s car, plowed into the ditch near his house. She’d had a stroke, and she was in the hospital undergoing a battery of tests, but he made it clear she was truly stricken. I made it down soon after to be with them and found that indeed Byron’s assessment of Louise’s condition was all too true. She was both unable to speak and almost totally disabled.
Weeks passed and Louise was finally allowed to return to Fairways Ranch, to live at home. She remained in a wheelchair, and along with some really dedicated therapists, Byron saw to it that she had everything she needed. I visited frequently, knowing my friend’s hurt and pain was just beneath the surface. His beloved was in such a helpless condition. He was true to his character and there to help her at all times.
For the two years between her stroke and her passing, Byron rarely left Louise’s side. We would leave to practice some golf, and a therapist would stay with her, but we were never gone for long. Byron constantly encouraged her to communicate as best she could and did everything in his power to make life a positive for her. By her passing, Byron had lost 30 pounds. All his friends (hundreds) were concerned about both his mental as well as physical health, as he had struggled with the trials of a disabled soulmate. He had given all he could (and then some) to care for Louise.
For a time after her death, Byron suffered her loss, even though he knew she was in a better place. He remained sad and his weight was still concerning us all. Then one day out of the blue I received a call from him asking ME for advice. This was seven months after Louise’s death.
Byron beat around the bush for a while, and I knew something was up, but he finally came to his point. He wanted to know if it was too early to enter into a new relationship with another person. He proceeded to describe Peggy and his obvious affection for her blossomed in his voice.
I hadn’t heard that joy for a long time. He again asked me if it was too soon. To this long suffering man I said, “Byron, you are a good man. Louise would want you happy. You have suffered enough and she hated it, even if she couldn’t tell you. She would want you to find happiness again. As far as the timing is concerned, forget thinking about any time frame for grieving. It’s been long enough…GO FOR IT!”
I didn’t hear from Byron for a while, but I remember that summer day like it was yesterday — when he walked onto the first tee of Inverness CC as I was preparing to play a practice round in the PGA Championship. He had that famous Nelsonesque grin on his face, something sorely missing for the past three years. Something was up! He said, “Tom, I have something to tell you,” and before he could get it out, I interrupted him laughing, “Don’t tell me, I know! You’re getting married!” He grinned even wider and just shook his head. I gave him a big hug of both relief and joy. Relief for a man who deserved a break. Joy that a new chapter of his life was about to begin.
And life began again for the man they called Lord Byron.
Thanks for being such an inspiration to us all.
(P.S. This story continues when you read what Peggy wrote in Life with Lord Byron. Enjoy!)