From the Golf Journal Archives - My Home Course: Byron Nelson – Inverness Club

Apr 15, 2011

By Rhonda Glenn

(Note: This article originally appeared in the March/April 1994 issue of Golf Journal.)

Byron Nelson, friendly proprietor of a sizeable niche in golf’s history, leaned back in a comfortable chair near the fireplace and began to reminisce about his home course, a course far removed from the hard plains of his Texas ranch.

“Anytime you start talking about golf courses, Inverness always comes to my mind,” Nelson said. “Always.”

All of us have such a course, some beloved old track on which we envision ourselves each time we think of golf, a home course of the heart. It may be the course on which we grew up – at whatever age – or the course where we reached some fine reckoning with the game, but we remember this as the place where we bonded with golf, where we learned to love the pure challenge of swales and hills and bunkers and wind. And in our reverie, it is a course where the grass was greener, the friends were finer, and the laughter sweeter.

Byron Nelson, now 82, has played hundreds of golf courses: the little Glen Garden layout in Fort Worth, where, as a boy, he played the game with a fellow caddie named Hogan; the Spring Hill Course at Philadelphia Country Club, where he won the 1939 U.S. Open; Hershey (Pa.) Country Club, where he beat Sam Snead to win the 1940 PGA; the regal Augusta National, where he beat Ben Hogan in a 1942 Masters playoff; Thornhill Country Club, where the 1945 Canadian Open became the last of his incomparable 11 victories in a row, and Las Colinas Sports Club near Dallas, where he hosts the PGA Tour’s annual GTE/Byron Nelson Classic. Of them all, it is Inverness where Byron Nelson feels most at home.

It has been nearly 50 years since Nelson left his job as head professional of the Donald Ross-designed layout in Toledo, Ohio, yet today he reels off the layout of each hole with startling recollection. Rarely does he miss an opportunity to return.

“I’ve been back nearly every year since I left,” he recalled. “When I went to the PGA at Inverness last year, I saw a lot of those people and I could still call their names. I still have some wonderful friends there.”

In 1940, Nelson arrived in Toledo as reigning U.S. Open champion. Today, that title would command a handsome paycheck from some clubs for a mere endorsement, but professionals of that era counted on having good club jobs simply to survive. In those days, Craig Wood worked for Winged Foot, Hogan represented Hershey Country Club, and Snead played out of The Greenbrier, although Hogan and Snead never really worked in the pro shop as Nelson did at Inverness. In 1940, Nelson’s salary there was $600 a month, in addition to the profits from his golf shop and income from golf lessons.

It was his fourth club job. After a stint in Texarkana, Texas, he had joined the staff of George Jacobus at Ridgewood (N.J.) Country Club. Then Jacobus recommended Nelson for a position at Reading (Pa.) Country Club. Two years later, Nelson was interviewed for the Inverness job by Cloyd Haas, president of the Haas-Jordan Company in Toledo and head of the club’s search committee.

“I signed the contract on June first, nineteen hundred and thirty-nine,” Nelson said. “Two weeks later, I won the U.S. Open, so I went to Inverness carrying the national championship.”

His glowing memories of Inverness are perhaps colored by the fact that Nelson enjoyed some of his finest playing years while working at the club. Inverness is a highly rated layout, one of the few to have hosted multiple national championships, including the U.S. Open in 1920, 1931, 1957, and 1979, and the PGA Championship in 1986 and 1993. During his years there, Byron won the 1940 and 1945 PGA Championships and the 1942 Masters. He attributes some of his success to frequent rounds on the rolling fairways carved out in 1919 by golf course architect Donald Ross.

“It’s a wonderful track,” he said. “There was no such thing as having ‘a little’ rough; you had rough all the time. The fairways were fairly narrow, greens small, and it was extremely well bunkered with typical Ross bunkers. The practice area was good and the greens were fast. In those days the greens were faster than they are now, because it was one of the few clubs to have what they called German bent-grass. It’s not available anymore, but it was beautiful. I was there five years, and they never had a bad green the whole time I was there. If you could play Inverness, you could play anywhere. It’s still that way. The 18th hole, for instance, is one of the greatest little short par 4s in the world – 336 yards.”

During those years, Nelson was in and out of Toledo as he played in a number of tournaments. When he returned, a favorite practice method was to seek out members of a group of fine Inverness players. To sharpen his competitive edge, he teed it up with Ed Tasker, Bob Sawhill, Ray Miller, and Alan Loop, all of whom could shoot in the 70s.

“Whenever I was going to a tournament; especially a match-play tournament, I would call these guys and get a game with three of them and play their best ball,” he remembered. “We’d just play for a dollar, but it was tough. I’d shoot in the mid-60s to break even. Finally, they were getting the better of me, so I made a deal with them that on the first hole, a pretty good par 4, I’d get one putt given to me. If I put it on the green in 2, 1 got a birdie, so I usually started 1 up, but I know one time I shot 66 and lost. These guys helped me be really sharp when I went on the tour.”

Inverness was the setting for many of Nelson’s more memorable rounds. One was with Frank Stranahan, an Inverness member who was coming into his own as a fine amateur. Stranahan kept pressing Nelson for a game, but Byron was so busy with his own tournaments and pro shop that he couldn’t find time. One day, Stranahan arrived at the shop with two pals and challenged Nelson to a game. Byron felt there was something of an edge to the challenge, as if Stranahan thought Nelson was afraid to play him. Nelson got a bit hot under the collar and agreed to play all three men, best ball.

“I was nicely steamed up and shot a 63, a new course record, beat Frankie and his friends, and Frankie never bothered me again,” he recalled.

“Right at the end of the war, it must have been 1945, I played an exhibition there with Frank, Bing Crosby, and Jimmy Demaret,” said Nelson. “The fourth hole is a wonderful par 4. You drive down on the plateau and there’s a big swale with a creek going through it, bunkers on the side, and then you play to the green, which is on top of a little hill on the other side.

“I always had a knack of playing that hole well. Going down the fairway, Bing, who had never played Inverness, said, ‘This sure is a good hole, isn’t it?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, it’s a wonderful hole and I’ve been lucky playing this hole. I think I’ve had more birdies on this hole than any other hole on the golf course.’

“I'll never forget – I had a 4-iron to the green, about 175 or 180 yards, and I holed it for a 2,” Nelson chuckled. “Crosby, who never seemed to get excited, just like the way he sung, looked around and kinda smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I see what you mean.’ ”

During Nelson’s era at the club, the Inverness Four-Ball was a popular event for professionals. Only seven teams were invited, but the field included names like Hogan, Revolta, Demaret, Bolt, Snead, Picard, Hagen, and, of course, Nelson.

In Nelson’s 1993 autobiography, How I Played the Game, he recalled a fateful pairing with The Haig.

“Because I was the host pro,” Nelson wrote, “they had me play with Hagen, because it would have been unfair for the other players to be paired with him as his game wasn’t very sharp. We had to walk, naturally, and Inverness was a tough course, so it was a bit much for Hagen. The ninth hole there comes right by the side of the clubhouse, the 10th tee is at the men’s entrance to the locker room, and the 13th hole comes back to the clubhouse again. So after we played the front nine, Hagen would say to me, ‘Play hard, Byron, and I’ll see you at the 14th tee.’ This was the only tournament I finished last in after becoming an established player (we tied for last, actually, at minus 14), but it was all for a good cause and it was fun to see Hagen play even then, so I really didn’t mind.”

It was more than the pleasure of playing the course that makes Inverness stand out in Nelson’s memory. In just five years, during which he spent much of the time on the PGA Tour, he developed lifelong friendships with the club’s members and employees.

The Inverness Club offered hospitality to professionals, unusual for its day. As far back as 1920, Inverness members had given professionals the run of the club during the U.S. Open. The gesture was so unusual, with many clubs still barring pros from their clubhouses, that the PGA presented the club with a splendid grandfather clock in appreciation.

When Nelson arrived at Inverness in 1940, he was amazed at the number of active golfers.

“Golf was a bigger business than when I was with George Jacobus or when I was at Reading,” Nelson recalled. “Golf was beginning to boom real well. I had 365 sets of clubs in the shop to take care of. That was a lot of clubs to have in a shop in those days.

“Huey Rogers, the caddie master, operated out of my pro shop,” he said. “He’d worked there for years and knew all of the members’ names. I’d be standing in the pro shop and we’d see the members coming down and he’d tell me their names. That way, I became better acquainted with the membership than I ever did any other place I’d ever been.”

Nelson was a marketing master. During his years at the club, he helped Cloyd Haas design a superior golf umbrella and, during the Second World War, helped the company obtain needed fabric. Haas made Nelson a vice president of Haas-Jordan. Nelson also believes he was the first professional to stock his pro shop with a full assortment of golf and street shoes.

“Eighty-four pairs,” he said. “I could fit nearly anybody who walked in the door. I made more money on shoes than I did on golf balls.

“Probably the smartest thing I did was have it to my contract that I could go out and join groups on weekends,” he said. “It got me better acquainted with the members, and I had more fun. I’d go out and play with this group for a couple of holes, and another group for a couple of holes. During the week, I’d go through the rack of 365 sets and examine every club and see who really needed some clubs, then I’d go out and play with them.

“I was working with MacGregor (Golf Company) then, and I’d have them make up some special drivers and special clubs during the winter to be delivered to me in the spring to sell, so I had clubs to fit all these people. I’d feature MacGregor, but I’d show other lines besides MacGregor.”

Nelson often went to great lengths to supply his members, and he remembers one member who was especially loyal.

“There’s a man, I’ll never forget him, Mr. Schwartzbaugh, who was going to Florida,” Nelson chuckled. “He came to my shop to the fall and asked for an athletic supporter. I told him I was sorry but it was late in the year and I was sold out. He said he’d like to have one so he’d get one in Florida. I said, ‘Don’t you get one down there. I’ll get one and send it to you.’ I got one and shipped it to him, and he never got over that. He never bought anything else, ever, except from me!”

Another key to Nelson’s acceptance at Inverness was his willingness to play with golfers of all skill levels.

“I didn’t play with certain cliques. I played with everybody that’d let me play with them, because I was having fun and they were good to me,” he recalled. “Of course, not all of them were good players. I’ll never forget Mr. Haas’s wife, Elsie. She was a short little Dutch lady, a real cute lady, and the best cook. Mmmm, boy, could she cook!

“Mr. Haas had promised her $100 if she could break 100. She was shooting way over 100, but one day she came to the 18th tee and her caddie, who always kept her scorecard, made the mistake of telling her that she was 92 strokes to there. She made a 9! From then on, she told her caddies not to tell her what she shot until she’d finished all 18 holes. She finally broke 100. I think she was the happiest person to break 100 that I ever saw. Not just because it was 100, but because she’d worked at it.”

While he enjoyed success as an instructor and merchandiser, Nelson was overwhelmed by the bookkeeping chores in his shop, so much so that he enlisted the help of an accountant, Roy Bowersock, to keep his books and tax returns.

At the start of the 1945 season, after five years at the club where he had made many friends, Nelson left Inverness to play the PGA Tour full time. That decision meant he could fully focus on his game, and it led to his incredible 1945 season, when he won 18 official tournaments, including the remarkable streak of 11 in a row.

His memories of Inverness and his strong ties to many of its people remain one of the great pleasures of Nelson’s diversified life. Roy Bowersock was eventually transferred to Weatherford, Texas, not far from Nelson’s Roanoke ranch, and he continued to manage Nelson’s finances for many years. Janet Walch, daughter of Cloyd and Elsie Haas, and her husband Bud, a member of the PGA advisory board, still remain among Nelson’s closest friends. His assistant professional at Inverness, Ray Jamieson, stays in touch, as does Herman Lang, another Inverness assistant who later became the club’s head professional.

At Inverness today, a large picture of Nelson has a prominent place. In the clubhouse, the old grandfather clock chimes out the hours, just as it did so many years ago. And when golfers walk up from the 18th green and settle in the clubhouse grill, they total their score-cards and tell their stories in a room named “Byron’s,” an appropriate tribute at the course that Byron Nelson calls home.

The 2011 U.S. Senior Open will be played at The Inverness Club from July 28-31. For more information about the championship, visit the U.S. Senior Open section of the USGA website.

These kids certainly had one of the best teachers in the game. How could you go wrong with a lesson from Lord Byron? (USGA Museum)

His memories of Inverness and his strong ties to many of its people remain one of the great pleasures of Nelson’s diversified life. (USGA Museum)