Byron Nelson on Choking, Confidence and Faith

“Lord Byron” in his unbeatable prime

We hadn’t expected to see any spectators on the tenth tee that fine April morning in 1994 or, for that matter, on any morning! But there they stood, an older gentlemen and a good looking younger woman like a couple of lost sightseers.

Of course the tenth tee did offer a praiseworthy prospect, especially on a fine morning such as we were enjoying. Ahead of us a narrow fairway wound its way up a steep hill to its crest where it doglegged left through a grove of tall Douglas Firs. To the north a lush, green fairway snaked through a deep ravine to an inviting eighteenth green.

Beyond lay Budd Inlet, its blue saltwater sparkling as if sprinkled with diamonds. On the eastern horizon overlooking all stood the colossus of Cascades … snow-capped, volcanic Mount Rainier, an inspiring and intimidating presence to those who stand within sight of its menacing bulk.

We exchanged greetings with the two sightseers, hit our drives and hiked off thinking no more of it until we’d completed our round. That’s when the club’s golf pro hustled over to us in a rather excited state of mind, “Do you know who that was on the tenth tee?” he inquired rhetorically. “Byron Nelson!”

“Who? Byron Nelson? The Byron Nelson?”

“Yep. The man himself, ‘Lord Byron,’ the man with the most unbeatable record in all of golf history, if not all of sport … eleven straight PGA tournament wins!

“Wow” I thought, “A living legend here on the 10th tee! Damn, I’m glad my drive didn’t embarrass me!”

When I entered the clubhouse I saw Nelson, his wife (the handsome younger woman) and the pro sitting down to lunch. The pro called me over to join them. He didn’t have to ask twice.

An atypical Hogan drive

The pro sat statue like and mute, intimidated by his proximity to the legend. His wife, who’d obviously been through this routine more than once, sat like a Lady next to her Lord munching on lettuce and sipping tea.

I made the fourth … and for over an hours of I chatted with an immortal of sport. “Wow!” I thought, “how crazy is this!”

To say we weren’t alone in the club’s lounge … which offered a spectacular view of white-topped Rainier standing above Budd Inlet’s liquid expanse of sparkling blue … would be gross understatement! The place was packed. News of the illustrious visitor spread like wildfire.

In spite of its burgeoning population, the lounge was as quiet as a church … which gave me the opportunity to interview the great man. Not one to shun such self-assumed responsibilities, I took to the task at once! My brain was stuffed like a Christmas curiosity shop in December with questions for the old man sitting next to me.

He and his wife, Peggy, had come to Olympia on a kind of farewell visit to courses Byron had played in the northwest during his touring days. In an exhibition round at our club, when it was still a nine hole course (with 18 tees), he shot a course record 59 that lasted until another 9 holes were added to the layout years later. He was spectacularly good.

And he still was. “Are you playing any of the courses on your trip?” I asked. “Yes he is!” Peggy replied enthusiastically. “And he can still beat par … but I’ve got to retrieve the ball from the cup for him.”

Mount Rainier, colossus of the Cascades

“Well, you see, I just can’t bend down so well anymore,” Byron added with a self-effacing smile.

We talked about his caddying days back in Texas, when both he and another of golf’s all time greats, Ben Hogan, carried at Glen Garden Country Club. Good friends, they competed against each other in their club’s annual caddie tournaments in which Nelson narrowly beat Hogan … twice.

“I always enjoyed beating Ben, and Sam Snead … after all, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” he confided.

We talked about one of Nelson’s illustrious students, Tom Watson, who’d also reached all-time-great status in the sport, about whom he mused, “Sometimes I think Tom’s only weakness is he’s too smart. When things start to go south he tends to over-think. That always spells trouble in golf.

“I always played best by feel,” he went on, “that’s how I learned the game. Not from a swing guru or similar such con man. I tried to get Tom to analyze less and to just accept the undeniable fact that in golf you’re always going to hit some bad shots.”

At that time I’d been competing in some USGA amateur championships around the northwest. Although a “low handicapper” I’d enjoyed limited success in these outings, often plagued by a mysterious neurological condition called “choking” … uncooperative nerves, self-doubts and breathing difficulties followed by disastrous consequences.

Tom Watson, a very smart golfer!

Over the years I’d tried to understand that phenomenon which strikes the rank amateur and accomplished professional alike (e.g. Rory McIlroy’s and Jordan Speith’s disastrous final round back nines at the Masters). Through a better understanding of the malady I hoped I might be able to choke-proof myself … like Nelson had obviously done and unlike the assistant pro I’d met in South Carolina a few years earlier whom I’d asked about this wretched affliction, which elicited this decidedly dramatic response.

“Choking? Choking? You want to know about choking? I’ll tell you about choking!” he said emphatically. “A few years ago I was playing in the New Orleans Open. It’s Sunday! I’m on the back nine! I’m leading! I can visualize my name at top of the leaderboard! I’m on the fifteenth tee, a dogleg left! I pull out my driver! Don’t ask me why! I haven’t a clue! I’d hit irons off of that tee during the three previous rounds and made birdie each time! I owned that hole! So I pound my drive through the dogleg into deep rough, double boogey the hole and boogey my way in! I come in out of the top ten! That’s what I’d call choking! And if I knew how to overcome it, I wouldn’t be here, a lowly assistant pro in South Carolina!”

“I don’t believe in choking,” Byron said with a comforting grin. “I think what people call choking is simply a lack of confidence.”

“Fair enough,” I responded after giving this some thought, “but … but what did you do when things got really bad, I mean out-of-control bad? Everybody’s to to suffer from that once in awhile.”

“Yeah, I suppose so … sure, of course,” he mused. “You know, when something like that happened I’d recite a psalm, like the 23rd Psalm … you know, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ … and that did the trick for me.”

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Now that makes sense!”

However, as much sense as that made, it didn’t work for me. It probably has something to do with the strength of your faith I figured. Nelson’s was profoundly unshakeable, whereas mine was, regrettably, shakeable. And although I did enjoy a modicum of success following my talk with Lord Byron, to this day that lunch ranks as one of the most memorable of my golfing experiences.

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