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Eulogizing a legend: Thousands pay tribute to Byron Nelson at memorial service

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, TEXAS — In death at age 94, golf legend Byron Nelson finally claimed the one prize he sought more than any other, thousands of mourners were told Friday.
Those who eulogized “Lord Byron” — against a backdrop of red, white and yellow flowers and large portraits of a young Nelson swinging a golf club in his prime and an older, white-haired Nelson holding a club in recent times — made it clear that he considered his trust and faith in Jesus Christ his greatest accomplishment.
But as fit his personality, the golfer best known for winning a record 11 straight PGA tournaments — and 18 in all — in his remarkable 1945 season, never made a show out of his faith, family and friends said. In his career, Nelson won 52 PGA tournaments.
“Uncle Byron was always a deeply religious man, but he did it in a quiet way,” Newell said. “He taught us his values by his life and his actions.”
Nelson’s widow, Peggy, remembered him as a “spiritual giant.”
Even in the last two years, when health problems made it increasingly difficult for him to walk, much less swing a golf club, Byron and Peggy seldom missed a Sunday or Wednesday night service.
Thirty-three years his junior, Peggy Nelson said he baptized her a month before their wedding. Peggy, who married Byron nearly 20 years ago after the death of his first wife, Louise, said he never failed to show her the love of Jesus in every way.
Before she left the couple’s Roanoke, Texas, ranch for a Bible study Tuesday morning, she said her husband told her, “I’m so proud of you.” She said he would have said the same thing — the last words she heard him speak — to everyone gathered at his memorial service Friday.
“For a long time, Byron never did talk a lot about going to heaven,” she said, “probably because he was so humble he didn’t want to sound presumptious.”
Nelson put his hope not in his golf accolades, but in the blood of Jesus, minister Rick Atchley said.
Atchley, an avid golfer, said Nelson was a hero of his growing up. Nevertheless, the minister said he resisted trying to meet Nelson in person, fearing the man wouldn’t live up to the image. But Atchley said Nelson “was even better” than advertised.
“We can debate which man was the greatest golfer, but there’s no debate over which golfer was the greatest man,” Atchley said.
Despite his humility, Nelson knew he was a good golfer, Atchley said. When golfing at a new course, he’d always ask what the course record was; he wouldn’t break it if the club pro held the record, Atchley said. When asked in later years how he might have fared in the modern game, Nelson would reply, “I wouldn’t have gone hungry.”
Nonetheless, Nelson’s friend, John Willbanks, said Nelson always considered himself an ordinary man and would wonder what all the fuss was about Friday. A throng of newspaper and television cameras gathered outside the funeral, while police officers with orange vests worked hard to keep the traffic flow moving.
“On this elegant, humble, simply proper man, what was ordinary was transformed into an extraordinary man,” Willbanks said.
In a prayer, he added, “Let us never forget that his greatest accomplishment was his trust and faith in your son Jesus.”
Professional golfer Ken Venturi, a longtime friend of Nelson, choked back tears as he concluded his remarks this way: “Byron, may God bless you and hold you in the palm of his hands. And I’ll always thank God that you passed my way.”
Sept. 29, 2006
Photo caption: Peggy Nelson, left, widow of Byron Nelson, speaks Friday during the memorialservice for golf great and Church of Christ member Byron Nelson at the Richland Hills, Texas, church. Nelson, who won52 tournaments during his career, and who won 11 straight tournamentsin 1945, died Sept. 27 at age 94. Standing next to Nelson issenior minister Rick Atchley. (Associated Press pool photo)

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