Nelson, 80, looks back on a 'wonderful life'

February 22, 1992|By Jeff Rude | Jeff Rude,Dallas Morning News

ROANOKE, Texas -- Byron Nelson at 80 is a jukebox waiting for a quarter. Drop one in and the records spin in his mind, and the words keep coming at you in exquisite detail. Events of 50 years ago seem as fresh as this morning's dew, and dates and numbers are recalled as if cue-carded.

"You have the mind of someone 60," his wife, Peggy, has told him.

No, Nelson's problem with 80 is not looking back. "I've had a wonderful life," he says. Rather, what worries him is fast forward. He has peeked ahead, and the possibility of senility scares him.

"It bothers me," Nelson said of becoming an octogenarian Feb. 4, "because I realize the next decade I'll be 90. I just hope I don't get to be a burden to Peggy from a mental standpoint."

He has been married five years to Peggy, a woman 33 years his junior. A woman he wed a year after Louise, his wife of 50 years, died. A woman he refers to as the "world's greatest wife and nurse." Even though she's a writer.

"I've been hospitalized seven times since we've been married," Nelson said, "and Peggy hasn't complained once."

So, then, this is Byron Nelson the week he hit another decade: He is sitting in a rocking chair at his 740-acre Fairway Ranch, which he bought upon leaving the PGA Tour in 1946, just a year after he won 18 of his 52 tournaments, including an unthinkable 11 in a row. He is in the family room, a mini golf museum, and is wearing wire-rimmed glasses and saddle shoes. He is holding a cane, is fidgety as usual, is talking almost non-stop and is feeling pain not only in his hip, but in his heart. His mother died Jan. 20 at age 98, and brain power is on his mind again.

"My mother had a lot of senility problems her last three years," he said. "She didn't even know me if I talked to her on the phone . . . I just hope I stay mentally alert. If I can live to be 94 and be OK health-wise and brain-wise, that would be fine."

Nelson had hip replacement surgeries in July 1990 and October 1991 and now exercises daily. Aiming to regain balance and hip mobility, he works out in the water for 30 minutes four or five times a week at the Las Colinas Sports Club and rides a stationary bicycle twice a day at home.

At the moment he uses the cane and can't put on his left sock or shoe by himself unless he has a long shoehorn. By mid-year, though, he hopes to play 18 holes for the first time in two years.

"Little shots," he said. "Ladies golf." He knows it might be too much to ask to duplicate the three 75s and two 76s he shot in the pre-surgery days at age 77 from the white tees at the TPC at Las Colinas.

He knows, too, that he misses the game. "I miss the companionship," he said, namely rounds with his wife and friends such as Jim Chambers, Felix McKnight and Jon Bradley. "And if I can't play golf, that means there are a lot of things I can't do. But I don't see why I can't get back to where I was. Most people it takes about six, eight months after surgery and about a year with older people."

Until he stopped playing in 1990, he consistently shot under his age, relying on accurate pitching and 210-yard drives. "Two strokes below [age] on a good day," he said. "I just wanted to shoot 80 or under. My one big problem was distance."

The hip, though, hasn't slowed him down much. His schedule remains fast-paced. The telephone rings often. He keeps busy working on the GTE Byron Nelson Classic, doing his therapy, going to church Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, and answering mail and requests for autographs that command $20 to $30 on the memorabilia market.

He also remains jumpy, as he was during "the streak" 47 years ago.

"I'm still fidgety at night, and I'm still not a good sleeper," he said. "I'm constantly moving until I fall asleep, like I'm moving this cane around in my hand now."

Winning 11 straight would jangle anyone's nerves. Or be worth remembering in detail. In Nelson's case, two nuggets stand out most about the run. One, he beat Sam Snead in a playoff the second week, at the Charlotte Open. Two, he was two-down to Mike Turnesa with four holes to go in the 1945 PGA, then match play, before going birdie-birdie-eagle-par to win, one-up.

He remembers never practicing during the streak other than maybe loosening up before rounds. He remembers getting one commercial endorsement, Wheaties. He recalls how his concentration had lapsed the week it ended when he finished "third or fourth." And he remembers feeling relieved when it stopped, then winning the next two tournaments.

"One day during the eighth tournament, I told Louise that I was getting so tired of it that I felt like blowing up and getting it over with," Nelson said. "I came in and she said, 'Did you blow up?' I said, 'Yes, I shot 66.' "

The streak came at a time when some top players were in World War II. Nelson did not serve because he had hemophilia.

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