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Published: Thursday, 9/28/2006

Nelson's link with Inverness forever

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Byron Nelson, golf's courtly 'Lord Byron', won 11 tournaments in a row in 1945, a record which still stands. Byron Nelson, golf's courtly 'Lord Byron', won 11 tournaments in a row in 1945, a record which still stands.
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The two names most associated with Inverness Club in the 1940s, if not to this day, were Stranahan and Nelson.

Robert A. Stranahan, a wealthy industrialist who was chairman of the board and president of the family-owned Champion Spark Plug Company, not to mention his status as Inverness' most prominent member, had a golfing prodigy in son Frank.

The club's golf professional, Byron Nelson, was also a PGA Tour player who came to Toledo in the spring of 1940 at age 28 with two major championships and a dozen pro wins already under his belt.

Frank, then 17 and flush with the cockiness of youth, wasn't that impressed. But R.A. was certain that someone with Nelson's credentials could impact his son's game.

Nelson, who went on to become one of golf's legends and who died in Texas on Tuesday at the age of 94, was a bit like Will Rogers in that he never met a man he did not, or at least could not, like. But a young Frank Stranahan most certainly stretched Nelson's patience to the limit.

"Before long, I realized that Frankie didn't pay attention to anything I had to say and wouldn't take any of my suggestions seriously," Nelson said during a 1998 interview with The Blade. "[Finally,] I told him, 'Frankie, I'm not going to give you any more lessons because you're wasting my time and your father's money.'

"I was in a tough spot a few days later because Mr. Stranahan, who was very influential at Inverness, came in the shop with Frankie and asked why I wouldn't give Frankie any more lessons."

It was eventually ironed out, the lessons resumed and, said Nelson, "Frankie changed his attitude and his golf swing and became a tremendous player."

Stranahan went on to win almost every major amateur championship in the world and, by the mid-1940s, was winning somewhat regularly as an amateur on the PGA Tour.

At the start, though, Stranahan was mostly a burr under Nelson's saddle. And while Nelson was a Christian gentleman who never cursed and rarely displayed his temper, losing to Stranahan was the one thing that could set him off.

Jim McGowan, then a teen-ager and later a Toledo builder and real estate developer, spent the summers of 1941-42 working for Nelson in the Inverness pro shop and witnessed those rare occasions.

"It wouldn't happen very often, but there were a couple times Frankie would clip him by a stroke or two," McGowan said yesterday.

"Byron would come back to the shop all red-faced, wouldn't say a word, and would disappear into the back room.

"All of a sudden, I'd hear the grinder whirring and Byron would be grinding big grooves into his putter and then he'd snap it over his knee. A few minutes later, he'd come back in all smiles and that was that."

One day, Stranahan and a couple other boys he regularly played golf with stopped by the pro shop and Frank issued another of his occasional challenges in a tone Nelson didn't like.

"There was something in the way he said it that made me feel [like] he thought I was afraid to play him," Nelson recalled almost 60 years later. "I guess he got under my skin because I got hot and I said, 'OK, Frankie, not only will I play you but your two buddies can come along and I'll play all three of you, your best ball against mine."

The punch line to Nelson's story is that he got "nicely steamed up" and shot a course-record 63, tucked a little of that Champion Spark Plug money into his wallet, and "Frankie never bothered me again."

Stranahan, now 84 and living in Florida, could not be reached for this story.

But in an interview in 2000, Stranahan said his memory of that particular round was hazy. He did praise Nelson as being "the best of his era, during the war years" and once called him "a great teacher. I wish I'd listened to him more."

Nelson, much like his friend and rival Ben Hogan, was noted for his pinpoint iron play, but once suggested that the key shot was the one that preceded that.

"It was in 1959 or 1960, when I was playing for Arizona State, and we were at a college tournament in Houston," recalled Rex Wilsen, a one-time pro and for many years the Titleist equipment rep in the Toledo area. "Mr. Nelson put on a clinic before the tournament started.

"He told us, 'People have always said I was a great iron player, but the secret is that it's not hard to be a great iron player from the middle of the fairway.' I've never forgotten that. He had a very, very simple swing that he could repeat every time he took the club back.

"In fact, Mr. Nelson pretty much invented the modern golf swing the way he used his legs and flexed his knees at impact. Before him, the swing was mostly hands and arms."

Nelson's swing changed the game shortly after the game had changed from hickory-shafted clubs to less flexible steel shafts. He used his hips and legs to drive through the ball, turning his shoulders and flexing his knees during the downswing.

His form was so perfect and so consistent that the United States Golf Association nicknamed the mechanical robotic machine it uses to test clubs and balls "Iron Byron."

How good was the swing and how precise was Nelson's shot-making?

Fresh out of the Army in the summer of 1946, Toledoan Bob Schlembach caddied for Nelson in an 18-hole exhibition round at Kettenring Country Club in Defiance. Nelson held out a $20 bill at the end of the day, but Schlembach turned down the money and instead asked for the signed scorecard, which he still has.

"Before the round, on the range, he poured about three dozen balls out and handed me the empty bag," Schlembach recalled yesterday. "He told me where to stand and every time he changed irons he would motion me to move back. As he went through the progression of irons, he dropped every shot directly in front of me. He was that good."

That swing produced 61 career wins, including 52 PGA Tour-sanctioned victories that rank sixth on the all-time list. He made the cut in 113 consecutive PGA events, a record since broken by Tiger Woods, and finished in the top 10 in 65 consecutive tournaments from 1942-46.

In 1945, of course, Lord Byron authored the most dominant year in the game's history, winning 18 times, including 11 tournaments in a row.

Nelson was part of the greatest trio of shot-makers ever to play at the same time. He, Hogan and Sam Snead were all born within six months of one another in 1912.

Nelson won five majors before the age of 34, but because he left the tour after the 1946 season at such a young age some of his accomplishments were overshadowed by Hogan and Snead, who continued to play for many years.

Hogan won nine majors, the last in 1953, and captured a total of 64 PGA events. Snead won a record 82 PGA events, the last at 52, and seven major titles.

But those are merely numbers, according to Ken Venturi, one of several golfers - Tom Watson and Harvie Ward were among the others - who were tutored by Nelson after he retired as an active player.

"His legacy," Venturi told the Houston Chronicle, "is that you can argue over who is the greatest golfer who ever lived. But he is the finest gentleman who ever played the game of golf."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398



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