Nelson, John Byron, Jr. (1912–2006)

By: John H. Slate

Type: Biography

Published: June 18, 2021

Updated: June 18, 2021


John Byron Nelson, Jr., professional golfer, was born on his parents’ cotton farm in Long Branch, Texas, near Waxahachie, on February 4, 1912. He was the son of John Byron Nelson, Sr., and Madge (Allen) Nelson. Nelson is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest American golfers of all time.   

He grew up in Fort Worth since he was the age of eleven and, at the age of twelve, became a caddy at Glen Garden Country Club. He dropped out of school when he was in the tenth grade in 1928, briefly worked with the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway, and took up golfing full time in 1929.

As a teenage caddy, Nelson worked alongside Ben Hogan, who also became a legendary golfer, lifelong friend, and professional rival. In 1927 Nelson beat Hogan by one shot after a nine-hole playoff in an annual caddy tournament. While he transitioned to a full-time tournament fixture, Nelson worked as a golf professional between 1932 and 1940 at courses in Arkansas, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He joined the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) in 1932. In 1934, while working as a golf pro in Texarkana, Arkansas, Nelson met Louise Shofner, who would be his wife for fifty years. The two were married on June 24, 1934, in Louise’s parents’ living room.

Called “Lord Byron” for his gentlemanly qualities, Nelson won the Vardon Trophy in 1939. He played on two Ryder Cup teams, in 1937 and 1947, and was non-playing captain in 1965. Nelson was a two-time winner of the Professional Golfing Association championship in 1940 and 1945, the U.S. Open in 1939, and the Masters Golf Tournament in 1937 and 1942.

Nelson was exempted from military service during World War II due to a blood clotting disorder. He spent much of the war giving exhibitions to raise funds for charities. During his professional career, golf clubs evolved from wooden to steel shafts, and Nelson was the first golfer to adjust his swing accordingly, modifying his stance and incorporating the use of his legs to add distance. This fortuitous timing helped Nelson become known as the father of the modern golf swing.

In 1945 Byron Nelson accomplished an eleven-tournament winning streak that had not been broken as of 2021. That year, playing in thirty-five tournaments, Nelson finished with eighteen victories, including eleven straight; finished second another seven times; and established a record for the lowest scoring average (68.33 for eighteen holes), which remained untouched for fifty-five years until broken by Tiger Woods in 2000. His 1945 season is widely considered the greatest single year by a player on the PGA Tour and, as such, one of the greatest in the history of the sport. He was twice named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, in 1944 and 1945. With his win at the 1946 Columbus Invitational, Nelson became the first player to reach fifty career PGA Tour wins. This feat has since been matched by Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, and Tiger Woods. His fifty-two career wins ranked sixth overall as of 2021. After 1946 he reduced his schedule but continued to make appearances at the Masters Tournament as a competitor, played occasional PGA events, and played several overseas tournaments.

Nelson retired officially at the age of thirty-four—much earlier than his peers Hogan and Sneed, both of whom were born in the same year as Nelson—to become a rancher, buying a ranch at Roanoke, Texas. He also gave paid golf exhibitions, later became a television golf commentator during the 1960s and 1970s, and regularly made appearances at PGA events. Nelson appeared as himself in the 1953 Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin movie, The Caddy, along with fellow players Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Julius Boros.

Nelson was a coach and mentor to Ken Venturi, Tom Watson, and Marty Fleckman. He was influential in the careers of such golfers as Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. In Jack Nicklaus's 1978 book On and Off the Fairway, Nicklaus wrote that Nelson was the “straightest” golfer he ever saw. Nelson published his memoirs How I Played the Game in 1993, in addition to authoring or co-authoring eleven books.

Nelson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. State Highway 114 Business Route through Roanoke, Texas, is named Byron Nelson Boulevard, in honor of Nelson’s residence; the street he lived on was changed to Eleven Straight Lane in honor of his 1945 record. In Irving, Texas, a street immediately adjacent to the Four Seasons Resort and Club, where the Byron Nelson Championship was played for several years, is named Byron Nelson Lane. A street in Southlake, Texas—Byron Nelson Parkway—was named in his honor, as was a street in a residential neighborhood in McAllen, Texas. He received the 1994 Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, the GCSAA’s highest honor. In 1997 Nelson became the second recipient of the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award.

His greatest naming honor is the Byron Nelson Golf Classic, the first PGA Tour event to be named for a professional golfer. Originally called the Texas Victory Open, first held at Lakewood Country Club in Dallas in 1944, it is the leading fundraiser for charity on the PGA Tour and has raised more than $143 million. In 1968 the event was renamed the Byron Nelson Golf Classic, and its title, through a series of sponsors, retains Nelson’s name.

The United States Golfing Association’s swing robot that tests and compares golf manufacturers’ clubs is nicknamed the “Iron Byron” in honor of his achievements and the consistency of his golf swing.

Nelson’s first wife, Louise Shofner Nelson, passed away in 1985. In 1986 he married Peggy Simmons, and the couple were together until his death at their Roanoke, Texas, home on September 26, 2006. Nelson had no children. He was affiliated with the Church of Christ. Nelson was buried at Roselawn Memorial Park in Denton, Texas. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on October 16, 2006, only weeks after his death. The legislation was introduced in April of that year.

“Byron Nelson,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/15896420/byron-nelson), accessed June 8, 2021. Dallas Morning News, September 27, 2006. Byron Nelson, How I Played The Game (Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1993). New York Times, June 27, 2007. PGA Tour: Byron Nelson (https://www.pgatour.com/players/player.01863.byron-nelson.html) accessed March 12, 2021.

Categories:

  • Religion
  • Church Of Christ
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Sports (Golf)

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century

Places:

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

John H. Slate, “Nelson, John Byron, Jr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/nelson-john-byron-jr.

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June 18, 2021
June 18, 2021

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