Originally created 05/14/98

Byron Nelson lords over his tournament



IRVING, Texas -- If anyone knows about the growth of golf, it is Byron Nelson, who started in the game as a caddie just miles from here and now plays host to the tournament that carries his name.

"In 1937, when I won the Masters, I was interviewed by one man -- O.B. Keeler," Nelson, 86, said Wednesday at the Four Seasons Club and Resort where the GTE Byron Nelson Classic is played this week.

"He worked for the Atlanta paper and The Associated Press and he was the one that tagged me `Lord Byron,"' Nelson said. "So the next day all the papers had a headline saying, `Lord Byron Wins Masters' and the name stuck."

The name stuck, the Masters became an institution and Nelson, who caddied with Ben Hogan at Glen Gardens Country Club in Fort Worth more than 70 years ago, has seen the game boom beyond his wildest dreams.

This year, nearly 1,000 journalists covered the Masters, and this week, ticket sales for the practice round and four days of the Byron Nelson Classic were cut off at 260,000 -- more than 50,000 people a day.

"When I started, there were no scoreboards, no communications on the golf course and no gallery ropes," Nelson said. "I would never have believed that we could have flourished like we have."

The PGA Tour has flourished and so has this tournament. Known originally as the Dallas Open, the first competition in 1944 was won by Nelson and the next two were won by Sam Snead and Hogan -- three giants born within six months of each other in 1912.

The tournament took on Nelson's name in 1968. Seven times the winner of this tournament ended up leading the PGA Tour money list for the year -- Nelson (1944), Hogan (1946), Jack Nicklaus (1971), Tom Watson (1978,'79,'80) and Tiger Woods (1997).

The crew that tees off Thursday in the first round -- including Woods, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson and Masters champion Mark O'Meara -- may achieve riches far beyond Nelson, but it's likely Nelson set some records that will never be broken.

In 1945, Nelson won 18 tournaments. That's more than Woods will play total this year on the PGA Tour. That same year, Nelson won 11 consecutive starts.

"Those are records that are going to stand," Nelson said. "They don't have to go play 30 tournaments a year," he said about today's players. "I did. I had to eat."

Many of those in the extremely talented field at the Byron Nelson this week don't have to worry about eating. Eight of the top 10 on the money list are here -- all except David Duval and John Huston.

Among those on hand is Leonard, a local boy who since playing here last year has won the British Open and the Players Championship as well as finishing second in the PGA Championship and the Tour Championship.

"My expectations have gotten a little higher," Leonard, who is still only 25, said Wednesday. "But at the same time, because of my success I don't beat myself up as much when I don't do well. You can't play well every week."

Unless your name is Byron Nelson and the year in 1945.

Divots: Duval, who had played four consecutive tournaments and likely will be in four of the next five, withdrew to get some rest. ... Steve Elkington pulled out of the tournament with a headache perhaps related to his chronic sinus problems. ... Tom Purtzer was a WD with a bad back. ... Four of the five left-handers on the PGA Tour are in the field: Phil Mickelson, Russ Cochran, Steve Flesh and Mike Weir. Only Kevin Wentworth is missing. All five have never played in the same event. ... Seven players in the top 10 at the BellSouth last week, including winner Tiger Woods, used the Titleist Titanium 975D driver. ... The Orlimar TriMetal fairway wood was in 64 bags at the Senior Tour event last week, according to the Darrell Survey. Callaway was second with 39 bags. ... Chip Beck hasn't made a cut since the 1997 Honda Classic, a streak of 35 straight (including two withdrawals).