Sunday, September 15, 2013

To an Athlete Dying Old

English: Fairway wood positioned near golf ball
English: Fairway wood positioned near golf ball (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Castagnera: To an Athlete Dying Old

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      The poet A.E. Housman penned a famous poem “To an Athlete Dying Young.”  Says Housman, “Smart lad, to slip betimes away from fields where glory does not stay.  And early though the laurel grows, it withers quicker than the rose.”  John Byron Nelson, who died on September 26th at 94, was perhaps the exception that proves the rule.
      When it comes to golf, I’m with Mark Twain: “A good walk ruined.”  So “Lord Byron,” as Nelson was sometimes known, was unknown to me.  Only from obits and eulogies have I learned that he held a legitimate claim to being the greatest golfer of all time.  In 1945 Nelson, who was 4-F and thus unable to serve in the war, won 18 tournaments, including 11 in a row.  Some have said that the competition was soft, due to the global conflict.  This criticism overlooks the simple fact that golfers compete, first and foremost, against the course.  Guys who actually get this stuff say Nelson’s score cards matched Tiger’s.
          Fine… but that’s not why I’ve come belatedly to admire Byron Nelson.  The really cool thing, I think, is that in 1946 he quit.  How come?  He had enjoyed 113 consecutive “cuts,” meaning he was among the competitors for whom the sponsors cut a paycheck at the end of play.  (Only Tiger’s 142 successive paydays surpass this record.)   Even though pro golf 60 years ago paid nothing like it does today, Nelson had enough to fulfill his real dream.  He went home to Texas and bought himself a ranch.
        Defying Housman’s dire warning that “the name died before the man,” Nelson’s real life as a champion began after he gave up competition at age 34.  Besides becoming a rancher, Nelson became golf’s greatest gentleman.  His Byron Nelson Championship, which will outlive the man himself, has already raised $94 million dollars for charity.  A full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News eulogized Nelson as, “A hero whose vision went beyond 18 holes.”
        One of the game’s first TV announcers, Nelson encouraged his professional progeny in all sorts of ways.  According to one obit, among the final products of his wood-working shop “were a dozen slivers branded with a psalm for each member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which competed last week.”  Lest you cynics out there think that those young golfers considered Nelson’s gestures silly or eccentric, note that Tom Lehman, the team captain, withdrew from the American Express Champion in England to fly to the funeral.
          Reputedly a great family man, too, Nelson remained married to his first wife until widowed in 1985.  He and his second spouse had only recently celebrated their 238th month together when on the day of his death he told her “I’m so proud of you,” as she strutted off to church.  When she came home he was gone.
          I don’t know what the great poet A.E. Housman would make of Lord Byron’s life; Housman himself died way back in 1936.  This humble columnist draws two lessons from Nelson’s long saga.
         First, his decision to give up the game in his prime proved that money is only as good as the happiness it gets you.  Apparently, Nelson’s paychecks bought him enough happiness and contentment to last six decades.  Not bad for an era when seven-figure bonanzas were undreamed.
         Second, his later years bring to my mind another poem… of which I seem to grow fonder with each passing year:  “Grow old along with me.  The best is yet to be.”
         The finest eulogy that I’ve read about Byron Nelson didn’t come from one of his many golfer-proteges.  His minister put it best.  “We can debate over which man was the greatest golfer, but we can never debate which golfer was the greatest man.”
          Let it be noted that I have not gone down to the furnace room to dust off the bag of clubs shoved into a corner down there.  But I wish I’d known Byron Nelson.
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