The year was 2006 and the place was Ridgewood Country Club in northern New Jersey. Byron Nelson, in the season of his passing four years ago, became a more enduring presence than ever at the prestigious metropolitan club. In part it was the familiar power of loss to heighten our consciousness. In part it was the club’s diligence in finding and cataloguing a cache of artifacts dating back to Nelson’s brief attachment to Ridgewood in the 1930s.
This research had been underway for many months when the great champion and ambassador of his sport died in September of 2006. It had unearthed many never-seen photographs of Nelson, some correspondence between him and Ridgewood eminence George Jacobus, and a little treasure of a scorecard. Dating to the mid-1930s, the card was a signed and attested record of Nelson’s 30-33-63 on Ridgewood’s championship 18. Rescued from a few decade’s repose in a locked garret, it represents the “new” course record at the Paramus, N.J., club.
Finally, 2006 was also the year in which the club’s adventurous golf professional, David Reasonor, re-enacted a mythic moment in Ridgewood history, circa 1935-36, Nelson’s years of employment there. Reasonor concocted a playoff to a fall member-guest in which deadlocked teams determined a winner by hitting middle irons from a designated spot at a flagpole 100-some yards away. The inspiration, of course, was the 55-cent challenge bet Nelson won by hitting the pole with his second shot after being put up to the task by two caddies who had wagered their pocket change.
Nelson’s career is amazing mostly for its wealth of achievement, especially the 18-victory season of 1945. But it also stands out for its unforced brevity. Born in 1912, Byron spent 22 years growing into golf and preparing for a competitive career, then 12 years pursuing one, all of this followed by 60 more years in a gentleman rancher’s retirement. A full one-sixth of his sojourn in championship golf was spent at Ridgewood, when you come right down to it.
Nelson became a touring professional in 1932. He showed up at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., in 1934 looking for a job as an assistant pro. Jacobus signed Nelson up with an offer of $400 for the 1935 season. In 1935, Nelson doubled up on his wages by winning his first tour victory at the New Jersey State Open, pocketing $400. Nelson took his synchromesh golf swing to the 1936 Met Open at Quaker Ridge and turned it loose, winning the tournament’s $500 first prize. With a full-scale PGA Tour yet to be developed, the Met was one of the important tournaments in the country. The ’36 field included Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour and just about every other prominent pro of the era.
Drenched in golf history, Ridgewood is already 15 years beyond its festive centennial celebration. That came in 1990, marked by the playing of a U.S. Senior Open there, with Nelson on hand as honorary tournament chairman, and publication of a club history. Even when the 100-year mark had first passed, the club remained intent on delving into its past.
“We knew there was a lot of material still not catalogued and inspected,” said club member Don Mahoney. Ridgewood hired Andrew Mutch and his Golf Curator Inc. firm to search, unearth and appraise anything not yet brought to light. One day, working his way through the upper locker area, Mutch came upon a room that had apparently been locked for years.
“It was full to the ceiling,” recalls Mutch, who went through every shred of material. “We found an entire Tillinghast file, including his original contract with the club. We found the club’s contract with Clifford Wendehack to design the clubhouse. But we really found a lot of material on Nelson. For someone who was only there for a year, he had quite a lot of photos and documents there. Byron made quite an impression.”
On Ridgewood, and on just about every corner of the golfing world.