Golfing legend takes his setback in stride

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Much has been made of the precipitous fall of golfing great Tiger Woods, whose quest to become the finest player in the history of the sport seemingly hit rock bottom recently when he carded the worst score of his professional career, a 14-over-par 85 at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.

Woods, who once seemed a lock to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 “major” championship victories, finished last in the tournament, some 29 strokes behind the winner.

Pundits, of course, are having a field day at his expense, poking fun that even the average duffer can “now play like Tiger Woods.”

Not quite, but a clever observation nevertheless.

Tiger’s current troubles remind me of a time when another golfing legend took it on the chin, thanks to my late father.

It happened in the spring of 1967 at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis where a certain golf superstar – Byron Nelson – was mixing with mere mortals at a press gathering to spotlight the initial showing of some new model automobiles. Lord Byron, as he was known in some circles, was on hand to lend class to an otherwise lackluster field of media duffers and prominent locals.

Nelson, then 55, had been retired for more than 20 years after a sterling career that included five major championships, including two wins at the Masters. The soft-spoken Texan cemented his Hall of Fame legacy in 1945 when he won an astonishing 11 tournaments in succession en route to 18 tourney wins for the year.

But for all that past glory, Nelson on that early May day in 1967 met his match. So much so that he had a special request of my father: “I hope you’ll give me a rematch.”

He reportedly uttered the words while walking off the fifth green at Bellerive after my father had “soundly trounced” him by scoring a birdie four to his par five.

To set the stage for my father’s self-acknowledged “greatest athletic achievement,” Nelson was traveling the course alone in a cart, ducking from one foursome to another to play a few holes with the guests. Ever the diplomat, Nelson praised my father for his “smooth swing” and said he “had the makings of a good golfer” if he would heed some kindly words of advice.

“You should be able to hit good shots consistently if you really BELIEVE you can,” Nelson told my father after watching him play the fourth hole.

That friendly piece of advice worked against Nelson on the very next hole. As my father reported, it went something like this:

“Nelson’s second shot found a deep bunker just over the green,” he related. “My second was in the rough, some 80 yards short of the par 5 hole. It was now time to ‘believe.’ I took a wedge from my bag, swung mightily, took a foot-long strip of turf, and watched in wonderment as my ball arched beautifully and nestled four feet from the pin.

“Lord Byron, as is his custom, came out of the trap in great style, some 8 feet away. But his putt for birdie hung on the edge of the cup. Now it was my turn to shine, as I tapped the four-footer into the hole for an unexpected pleasure, a birdie, and a one-hole victory over Byron Nelson! THE Byron Nelson!

“The crowd went wild,” my Dad recalled. “Well, at least one of us did. I turned somersaults, danced and pranced around the green, bands played – if only to me, and all was bedlam at Bellerive.

“It was a moment of glory, taken in a most nonchalant manner.”