Lesson From A Legend

From 1950-1961, my father was the Golf Professional at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. When the club hosted the 1968 United States Amateur Championship, Dad decided to attend the event and I was fortunate to make the trip with him. After arriving at the course on one particular morning, he told me to meet him on the driving range at 4:00 p.m. so he could watch me hit some balls. That afternoon I got to the practice tee a little early and began warming up. A short time later, I could tell that Dad was on his way to meet me because I could hear his voice in the distance. By the time I looked up to greet him, I noticed that he was standing nearby and speaking with a man not at all unfamiliar with the game of golf. There, beside my father was the illustrious Byron Nelson.

My father introduced us and said that his friend Byron had come to the practice tee because he wanted to watch me hit some balls. At that point, Mr. Nelson told me to just relax and swing away like I always did. I may have been only fifteen years old at the time but I knew very well who it was standing there with Dad. Almost immediately a small crowd began gathering to watch me whack them out there. This, of course, was pretty cool and gave me the feeling of importance until later when it occurred to me that it was probably Lord Byron and not me who was the real person of interest.

I remember hitting shot after shot and hearing Mr. Nelson’s gentle voice echoing words of encouragement and praise. Then, as I was about to launch another one, he moved in close enough to actually step-on the head of my club. This particular action did not confuse me because I was already a veteran at taking lessons from Dad who was always doing thought-provoking stuff like that to illustrate a point. Mr. Nelson’s instruction for me was pretty simple, just go ahead and generate the movements that I could produce even though his foot was on the club. In other words, he wanted me to try to make as much of a backswing as possible while the club remained stationary. When I got about as far into my restricted backswing as my body would allow, he lifted his foot off the club head. The club seemed to rebound in an instant and found its way to the top of my backswing. I was amazed at how far the club had traveled which really seemed to demonstrate the elasticity of young muscles.

Then, Mr. Nelson asked me if I knew what point he was trying to make. I told him, “I think so,” but then I didn’t say much more, not wanting to be wrong in my assessment. He told me that it was important for “everything” to move at the same time when starting the backswing. Apparently, I was just swinging the club back with my hands and arms which resulted in my weight shift and turn occurring too late. He also pointed out that by keeping the club head on the ground (as I began my swing) was really an exaggerated way of showing me the difference. I knew just what he meant because that was how Dad always taught. Both of them thought that the quickest way to stop doing something was to do just the opposite.

That bit of instruction I got from Byron Nelson, one of the world’s greatest players, did much for my golf game. However, receiving his undivided attention that day did even more for my love and respect for the greatest game of all. I’m pleased to say that I was fortunate to remain in contact with this wonderful man through the years and right up until his death on September 26, 2006. It was indeed an honor for me to know him.

For the record: The U.S. Amateur Championship was held August 28-31, 1968. It was won by Bruce Fleisher with a score of 284. Of all the major championships held at Scioto, the ‘68 U.S. Amateur might have been played on the most difficult golf course. The greens were very firm, almost too hard and the rough was typically thick USGA rough making shots to the green virtually impossible to hold.  The course was set up as a par 70, with the eighth hole playing as a 465 yard par 4 instead of a par 5. The field of 150 was full of collegians: Bruce Fleisher, Tom Watson, Hubert Green, Lanny Wadkins, Andy North, Doug Tewell, Leonard Thompson, Rod Curl, Barry Jaeckel and Jim Simon, as well as well-known amateurs Michael Bonallack, the British Amateur Champion, Dale Morey, Jack Hesler, Vinnie Giles and Gary Cowan, Canadian Amateur champion.

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