Golf legend Byron Nelson, who helped push the sport to new heights at Abilene Christian University, died Tuesday at his home in Roanoke. He was 94.
According to published reports, a family friend said Nelson died at his home around noon, and his death was later confirmed by the Tarrant County medical examiner. He is survived by his wife of nearly 20 years, Peggy. Funeral arrangements are still pending.
Nelson helped put ACU golf on the map in 1984 when he headlined a fundraiser in Dallas to launch the Byron and Louise Nelson Golf Endowment, a fund he continued to support with his appearance at the school's annual Byron Nelson Golf Tournament each fall at the Four Seasons Resort in Las Colinas.
Nelson was a longtime supporter and friend of ACU's golf program and the university itself. After Nelson's retirement from the PGA, he became a member of ACU's Board of Trustees (1965-74) and National Development Council (elected in 1963). His brother, Dr. Charles Nelson, is a professor emeritus of music at ACU.
"We've lost a great man today," said ACU president Dr. Royce Money. "Byron Nelson was a wonderful Christian example whose life had a profound and lasting impact on everyone he met. His contribution to ACU and the ACU golf program will be felt for generations to come."
"For most of the last 60 years, Byron was a living legend," Money said. "But he was so humble and had such a kind and gentle spirit that I don't know of anyone who didn't like Byron Nelson. We will miss him tremendously, and we have his family in our prayers." Still revered by today's PGA Tour players as the "ultimate gentleman," Nelson became directly involved with the ACU golf program in May 1984 when ACU hosted a fundraising event in Dallas honoring him. The dinner raised more than $400,000 to permanently endow the ACU men's golf program.
That money - and the name behind it - helped ACU put together one of the best golf programs in NCAA Division II athletics. Since 1985, ACU has won eight Lone Star Conference golf championships and one NCAA Division II national championship and seen more than 50 of its athletes earn all-Lone Star Conference, all-America and academic all-America honors.
Shortly after the Nelsons added their name to the golf program, Vince Jarrett became the head coach at ACU, partially, he said, because of Nelson's ties to the program.
"The two main reasons I decided to take the coaching job at ACU were because of the Christian attitude of the school and Byron Nelson," said Jarrett, who coached at ACU for 18 years. "Not only did Byron help in getting the kind of kids we wanted ACU, he made me a better person just by knowing him. My entire life changed when I went to ACU, and Byron was an influential part of that."
Jarrett, in fact, was regaling his friends with Nelson stories on a tee box in Houston early Tuesday morning, shortly before his friend passed away.
"Before we teed off (Tuesday) we were talking about him," Jarrett said, "and I told some of my players I would try to get them up (to Dallas) to see him. We didn't get there, but we'll see him again."
Nelson returned to Abilene twice in the last four years to be part of special ceremonies where he was recognized. In February 2002 he was awarded the first "21st Century Award" in honor of his outstanding contribution to the ACU athletics program. And in May 2005 he made his last appearance at ACU to honor longtime friend and former ACU golfer Jon Bradley, who was inducted into the school's Sports Hall of Fame. "
ACU is eternally grateful for the service and time that Byron Nelson devoted to the ACU golf program," ACU director of athletics Jared Mosley said. "We will always be appreciative to Byron for the impact that he had and the legacy he has left for our golf student-athletes. Byron was one of the most amazing men I have had the pleasure to meet. I was always struck by his passion for golf, people, his church and so many other things in his life outside of golf. He truly had a Christ-centered perspective in his life and it showed in the way he interacted with and loved those he came into contact with."
As a player, Nelson is best known for his PGA-record 11 straight tournament victories in 1945. No players has come close to matching that record in the last 61 years, although Tiger Woods did win six straight tournaments in 2001. Nelson holds PGA records for most victories in a season (18 in 1945), lowest scoring average in one year (68.33 in 1945), most consecutive rounds under 70 (19 in 1945), and most consecutive cuts made (113). Nelson won major championships in 1937 (Masters), 1939 (U.S. Open), 1940 (PGA Championship), 1942 (Masters) and 1945 (PGA Championship). Besides his five major championships, Nelson was also the runner-up at the 1946 U.S. Open, 1941 Masters, 1947 Masters, and 1939, 1941 and 1944 PGA Championships. He was a member of U.S. Ryder Cup teams in 1937, 1939 and 1947, and was the non-playing captain in 1965.
He was elected to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1955 and the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. But for Jarrett, it's not the accolades that made Nelson special; it was the man himself.
"Losing Byron is a great loss," Jarrett said. "For me it's like losing a grandfather. He's someone I admired completely for 24 years, and I'm going to miss him. This is one of those days everyone knew was coming, but it's a day that everyone was dreading. We lost a great man. ACU lost a great friend. And we lost a great leader."