Byron Nelson, golf's elegant "Lord Byron" whose 11 straight tournament victories in 1945 stand as one of sport's most enduring records, died Tuesday September 26th. He was 94.
His wife, Peggy Nelson, told family friend Angela Enright that her husband appeared fine as she left for Bible study Tuesday morning. As she left their Roanoke, Texas home, he told her, "I'm so proud of you," something he often said about her church involvement. When she returned, she found him on the back porch facing his woodworking shop. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office said he died of natural causes.
Known for his graceful swing and gentle manner, Nelson had the greatest year in the history of professional golf in 1945 when he won 18 tournaments. He captured 31 of 54 tournaments in 1944-45. Then, at age 34, he retired after the 1946 season to spend more time on his Texas ranch.
"Byron Nelson was, without question, one of the greatest players our game has seen," said Jack Nicklaus, whose 73 PGA Tour wins rank second only to Sam Snead's 83. "When you talk about people who provided the foundation for the modern game of golf, Bryon Nelson is one of the first names you must mention. I think the only thing that rivals Byron's greatness on a golf course is the manner in which he conducted his life-as a gentleman, a role model and an ambassador."
The namesake of the Byron Nelson Classic, Nelson was passed by Tiger Woods for fifth on the all-time career victory list earlier this month. Woods won the Deutsche Bank Championship on September 4 for his 53rd career victory; Nelson has 52.
"When I was playing regularly, I had a goal," Nelson recalled years after his retirement. "I could see the prize money going into the ranch, buying a tractor, or a cow. It gave me incentive." That incentive pushed Nelson to become one of the best players of his era. He won the Masters in 1937 and '42, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and '45. In 1945, Nelson won a record-setting 11 tournaments in a row, a mark also being challenged by Woods.
Woods has won five consecutive PGA Tour events so far this season. "In this day and age, with this competition, to win 11 in a row would be almost unheard of," Woods said after his fifth straight victory when asked how Nelson's accomplishment compared with others, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. "What Byron accomplished, that goes down as one of the great years in the history of our sport. ... DiMaggio's record, I see that being broken more than winning 11 in a row." Another golf legend -- Arnold Palmer -- agreed with Woods. "I don't think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year," Palmer said in a statement. "But, I suppose that is not the most admirable thing that he did, although it was certainly tremendous. He was a fantastic person whom I admired from the time I was a boy.'' Tiger's next PGA Tour start will be the American Express Championship outside London at the end of September.
Nelson also finished second once in the U.S. Open, twice in the Masters and three times in the PGA. Nelson played in the British Open only twice, finishing fifth in 1937. Nelson's long, fluid swing is considered the model of the modern way to strike a golf ball and his kind, caring style with fans and competitors made him one of the most well-liked people in sports. "I don't know very much," Nelson said in a 1997 interview with The Associated Press. "I know a little bit about golf. I know how to make a stew. And I know how to be a decent man."
His second British Open was in 1955, when he was no longer a serious competitor, although he did win the French Open on that trip for his last professional victory. His prize money, however, was not enough to pay the hotel bill. "I had to put up another $200," he told the AP with a huge smile.
Byron Nelson was born February 4, 1912, on the family farm and started in golf in 1922 as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. One year, he won the caddies' championship, defeating Ben Hogan in a playoff. It was the beginning of a rivalry that never really materialized. Though they were born six months apart, Nelson won all five of his major championships before he was 34 and Hogan won all nine of his after he was 34.
After graduating high school, Nelson got a job as a file clerk in the accounting office of the Forth Worth and Denver Railroad and played golf in his spare time. He lost his job during the Great Depression but found work in 1931 with a bankers' magazine. The same year, he entered his first tournament, the National Amateur in Chicago, where he missed qualifying by one stroke. With jobs hard to find, he turned professional in 1932.
He made an appearance each year at the Masters, joining Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen in hitting the ceremonial first balls, and hosted the Byron Nelson Classic each May. "Today we have lost a truly wonderful gentleman," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said. "Byron has meant so much to so many people, and has been an integral and important part of this Tournament since he first played here in 1935. Byron will be sorely missed at this year's Champions dinner and will be remembered in perpetuity as players cross the bridge at No. 13 that bears his name."
Nelson started out competing against Gene Sarazen and lived to see Woods, an era that went from hickory shafts to titanium heads. "I did not ever dream in my wildest imagination there would be as much money or that people would hit the ball so far," Nelson said in his 1997 interview with the AP. "I only won $182,000 in my whole life," he said. "In 1937, I got fifth-place money at the British Open -- $187 -- and it cost me $3,000 to play because I had to take a one-month leave of absence from my club job to go."
As a hemophiliac, Nelson was excused from military service during World War II. But despite the weak fields, his accomplishments in the war years were astounding. In 1944, he won 13 of the 23 tournaments he played. The following year he won a record 18 times in 31 starts. Nelson finished second seven times in 1945, was never out of the top 10 and at one point played 19 consecutive rounds under 70. Nelson held the PGA Tour records for most consecutive made cuts (113) and for single-season scoring average (68.33) until both were broken by Woods.
"He was a legend who transcended generations and was loved and respected by everyone who knew him. Our players, young and old, looked to Byron as the consummate role model of our sport. His legacy spans across his historic performances, the gentle and dignified way he carried himself and his tremendous contributions to golf and society," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. Asked in 1997 how the winning streak affected him financially, Nelson said: "Well, I got some Wheaties, but not until after I had won seven or eight in a row did I get them. And I got 200 bucks."
The attention on Nelson as the streak lengthened grew quicker than the money."There wasn't any pressure at first, but it pyramided as the string grew," Nelson remembered. "It got to be like an auction. The headlines would say, 'Nelson wins No. 5, can he make it 6?' or 'Who can stop Nelson?'"
He was voted AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1944 and 1945. Nelson's 52 PGA Tour victories are sixth on the career list behind Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Woods. He was elected to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953 and to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
In the 1960s he became one of golf's early TV announcers. Although Nelson continued to play in an occasional tournament after 1946, he retreated to his 673-acre ranch in Roanoke, Texas, and never returned to competitive golf full time.
"Apart from being one of the greatest players ever, Byron Nelson was always the epitome of a gentleman. His passing marks the end of arguably golf's most prolific era, which included the likes of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead," Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and winner of Nelson's tournament in 1983, said in a statement. "To my mind, Byron was possibly golf's most consistent player ever."
Nelson developed a widely imitated "Texas style" swing that was upright and compact, unlike some of the unwieldy swings of early players. "The mechanics of my swing were such that it required no thought," Nelson said. "It's like eating. You don't think to feed yourself. If you have to think about your swing it takes that much away from your scoring concentration."Nelson, who tutored eight-time major championship winner Tom Watson, had a swing players envied.
"For many Byron will be remembered for his incredible record as a professional golfer, including winning 11 tournaments in a row. But he will be most remembered for the genuineness and gentleness he brought to all those around him. I will miss him, but I will always remember what he taught me," Watson said in a statement.
Asked in 1997 what made Woods special as a golfer, Nelson sounded as if he were describing his own swing. "He has perfect balance," Nelson said. "His coordination from the feet up is all synchronized. And you've got to feel through your sight. He does that great."Then, with a graceful demonstration of the part of the golf swing from the waist on the downswing to the waist on the follow through, Nelson said: "From here to here, you can't see anything because he moves so fast." Beside the flowing swing, Nelson saw another similarity. "I was taught to do the best I could possibly do," Nelson said. "When he hits a bad shot, he doesn't like it. He wants to do the best he can do and when he doesn't, he doesn't like it."