Harrison Frazar knows what his friend Byron Nelson would have said to him about his first start in the Masters Tournament this week.
“He would have shaken my hand and said, ‘Job well done, but it shouldn’t have taken you that long,’ ” Frazar said.
At age 40, Frazar won the St. Jude Classic in Memphis in June for his first PGA Tour win in 14 years on the tour, and a spot in the Masters.
Nelson, a fellow Texan, won the Masters in 1937 and 1942. Frazar was invited a few times to his Fairway Ranch in Roanoke, Texas.
“Lord Byron” died in September 2006, but his widow, Peggy, and Frazar have kept in touch, especially after his win at St. Jude.
“She was very happy for me and my family,” he said. “She’s a sweet lady and has been a wonderful source of support.”
Frazar wishes his friend, who he always refers to as “Mr. Nelson,” was alive to see him tee off Thursday. The Masters was one of the topics they’d talk about when Frazar visited Nelson at his ranch.
“He spoke very fondly of Augusta National and the Masters,” Frazar said of Nelson, who played 29 times at Augusta National, was the master of ceremonies at the Champions Dinner from 1956 to 2005 and served as an honorary starter from 1981-2001 (not consecutively).
“It was one of his favorite places,” Frazar said. “I remember him telling stories of how he played on the back nine and shots that he hit, and he remembered the smells and the colors of the flowers. It left a lasting impression on him that he had no problem sharing with other people.”
In early March, Frazar played Augusta National for the first time on a scouting trip. After teeing off on No. 13, he walked across Nelson Bridge, which was dedicated in 1958 and named in honor of Nelson’s play en route to victory in 1937. In the final round, Nelson made a birdie on the par-3 12th and an eagle on the par-5 13th to pick up six shots on Ralph Guldahl. Nelson would shoot 70 and win by two over Guldahl.
“I thought about him,” Frazar said. “Walking across the Nelson Bridge you can’t help but think of all the greats of the game that have stepped on that very same piece of ground when you step off of it. All of them came to mind. It’s an honor to be there.”
Frazar said Nelson “was always a good sounding board for me and a good source of reason.”
Frazar played so poorly in the previous five years (53 missed cuts in 79 starts) because of injuries that he had decided to give up his tour career midway through the season. Playing on a medical exemption, he wasn’t making enough money to keep his card for the rest of the season, and he was going to take a job in sports marketing.
Frazar did qualify for the U.S. Open, but he felt that would be his last tournament of his winless tour career.
“It’s a very, very lonely thing out there, spending 14 years somewhere not winning,” he said. “It becomes a habit over time more than anything else. You expect yourself not to.”
Then, the week before the U.S. Open, Frazar played in the St. Jude Classic. Despite a double bogey on the opening hole of the tournament, Frazar relaxed on the fifth hole and managed to shoot 71. He followed that with 65, 64 and 67, then beat Robert Karlsson on the third hole of a playoff.
It was Frazar’s 355th career start.
With the victory came a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and spots in the four majors and the winners-only Tournament of Champions at the start of the year.
“The perk that no one talks about is the sense of validation that you get,” Frazar said. “Winning a golf tournament validates what you’re doing.”
“Playing in the Masters was kind of like icing on the cake for him; getting that win was so big for him,” fellow Texan and PGA Tour player Colt Knost said last month at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“He’s been so close so many times. Just to see what he’s been through and how much talent he has and not been able to get it done ... it’s kind of shocking that he hadn’t won as talented as he is,” Knost said. “To get the win in Memphis was unbelieveable. Everyone out here was rooting for him. You could tell it was a huge weight off his shoulders. Now his confidence is sky high and he’s playing the best golf of his life, I think.”
Of all the perks he got from winning, Frazar said, “Augusta is at the very top simply because of the aura and awe that we’ve all held Augusta National and the Masters in since I was a kid.”
If it wasn’t for fellow Texan and 1971 Masters champion Charles Coody, Frazar might not have even taken golf seriously. When he was 14 and playing junior golf but not thinking of a pro career, Frazar said Coody invited his father to be one of his guests at the Masters.
It turned out to be one of the most famous Masters – 1986, the year Jack Nicklaus won his sixth green jacket at age 46.
“I had not really followed the Masters very closely, but because he was there I sat there and watched it,” Frazar said. “Of course, it was the year Jack won and all the excitement and all of a sudden I was hooked. So a lot of my love of golf and my passion for the game and my desire to be a professional is traced back to Augusta.”
A large group of friends and family (“everybody who supported me and helped me over the years”) has tried be there for Frazar to see him tee off Thursday.
“I know I’m going to be nervous,” he said. “I’m going to shaking on the first tee. I’ll be nervous on the driving range before the first round. I don’t want to go through that and then fall on my face. I’d like to be competitive; I’d like to play some good golf.”
He wants the Masters to be a regular stop on his schedule.
“I don’t want this to be a one-time deal for a lot of different reasons, not just for Augusta,” said Frazar, who started this season with a tie for fifth in the Tournament of Champions and a tie for second at the Sony Open the following week. “I want to win more, and I’ve proven to myself that I can, so I want to do it more often.
“Not that it (the Masters) would ever lose importance, but now that I’ve seen it and know what everybody’s talking about I’d like to have a couple more stabs at it when it’s not all new and exciting and nerve-wracking and unsure,” he said.
As for the practice rounds and his Masters experience so far this week, “It has been fantastic,” he said. “It’s everything you dream about.”