'Lord Byron' leaves remarkable legacy

Updated: October 3, 2006, 1:42 PM ET
By Mike Meserole | Special to ESPN.com

Byron Nelson, the courtly Texan with the textbook swing who died Tuesday, holds two records even Tiger Woods may never approach.

Byron Nelson
Byron Nelson won five Grand Slam titles and had 52 PGA Tour wins.
In 1945, Nelson won 11 straight tournaments and 18 events overall. Woods has won five straight PGA Tour events heading into this weekend's American Express Championship. It is his longest personal win streak on Tour.

Nelson, who had a PGA Tour event in his native Fort Worth named for him, was "probably the nicest, warmest, friendliest immortal that ever came down a fairway," according to golf writer and fellow Texan Dan Jenkins. His laid-back manner was always compared with fellow country boy Ben Hogan, who was six inches shorter, six months younger and a cold-blooded assassin on a golf course.

The popular Nelson and the pugnacious Hogan grew up in Fort Worth and were both 12 when they first met as caddies at a modest, little nine-hole layout known as Glen Garden Country Club. Even then Nelson was unique. "Unlike every other caddie in the yard," writes Hogan biographer Curt Sampson, "Byron didn't swear, fight, gamble or smoke. The Bible and the Church of Christ were his guiding lights."

Like all caddies back then, he taught himself how to play. In a 1986 interview with golf writer Al Barkow, Nelson recalled his first real round of golf as a 12-year-old: "I shot 118, and I don't think I counted when I whiffed it. I actually hit the ball 118 times. But I went from 118 that year to 79 the next. I just fell into it, and started hitting the ball. The pros weren't interested in teaching juniors. They were unapproachable, most of them. So I got every book that was around and watched good players and started piecing together my own game."

As 15-year-old rivals, Nelson and Hogan tied for first place in the annual Glen Garden Christmas caddie tournament and Byron won a nine-hole playoff by a stroke. Fifteen years later, they tied for first at the 1942 Masters and Nelson won that playoff by a stroke, too, over 18 holes.

Nelson, Hogan and Virginian Sam Snead, who was also born in 1912, accounted for 21 victories and 18 second-place finishes in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship in 18 years from 1937 and 1954. They also combined for an astonishing 196 career victories on the PGA Tour, Snead winning 81, Hogan 63 and Nelson 52. They were America's second great golfing triumvirate, following the Roaring '20s trio of Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen.

In the fall of 1927, Nelson played a small role in his idol Hagen's fourth straight PGA Championship victory at Cedar Crest Country Club in Dallas. During the deciding match against Joe Turnesa, Hagen, who played without a hat, needed something to fend off the glare of the sun while he took his second shot on the 13th hole. Recognizing the tall 15-year-old who had been following him around all week, Sir Walter asked the future Lord Byron if he could borrow his visor. "You bet, Mr. Hagen," said young Nelson, absolutely thrilled to be of assistance. The Haig took the visor, pulled it on to shade his right eye, and reached the green in two. He won the match and the championship, 5 and 4.

Nelson, whose full name was John Byron Nelson Jr., was born in Waxahachie, Texas, just southeast of Fort Worth on Feb. 4, 1912. The son of a grain and feed merchant, he dropped out of high school to clerk for the Fort Worth and Denver City Railroad, a job that afforded him plenty of daylight hours to play golf.

He turned professional in 1932, secured his first teaching position at Texarkana Country Club a year later, and married Louise Shofner, a girl he had met in Sunday school, a year after that. He moved up north to take an assistant pro's job at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey in 1935 and that summer won his first pro tournament, the New Jersey State Open, beating a field that included Paul Runyon, Craig Wood, and Vic Ghezzi.

Two years later, he was summoned to play in the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, as the Masters was called back then, and won his first major tournament by two strokes over another 25-year-old Texan, Ralph Guldahl. Nelson would be Augusta's youngest champion until Jack Nicklaus pulled on his first green blazer as a 23-year-old in 1963.

He also got his first taste of international golf in 1937, finishing fifth in the British Open, a major he only played once in his prime, and helping Walter Hagen's U.S. squad beat the Britons, 8-4, in the Ryder Cup.

By the time Nelson claimed his second Masters in 1942, he had also won the 1939 U.S. Open and the 1940 PGA Championship, and had become an innovator of modest repute by designing golf shoes, inventing the golf umbrella, and popularizing the tennis visor as appropriate headgear. The press took to calling him "Lord Byron, golf's mechanical man," a tribute to his unerring driving and iron play.

In '39, he finished first in all three major domestic opens at the time -- the North & South, U.S., and Western -- then lost the deciding match of the PGA Championship, 1-up, to Henry Picard on the 37th hole. After the Bobby Jones grand slam sweep of the U.S. and British Opens and the U.S. and British Amateurs in 1930, Nelson's near-sweep in '39 was the decade's most dominant season.

At the U.S. Open in Philadelphia that year, Nelson posted a 68 in the fourth round to tie Craig Wood and Denny Shute after Snead gave the championship away with a bogey 5, triple bogey 8 on the last two holes of regulation and finished two strokes back. The next day, 18 holes were not enough to separate Nelson and Wood (they shot 68s, while Shute had a 76), forcing another round that Nelson won by three strokes with a 70.

Nelson's victory in the 1942 Masters came four months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor had brought the United States into World War II. Within a year the military draft and gas rationing reduced the PGA Tour to just three tournaments. But in 1944, with Germany and Japan on the run in Europe and the South Pacific, confidence returned on the home front and the tour came back to life with 22 events.

A mild case of hemophilia earned Nelson a 4-F classification from his draft board, an exempt status shared by his friend and four-ball partner Jug McSpaden, who suffered from severe sinus allergies. Together, golf's "Gold Dust Twins" ruled the revived PGA Tour with 12 victories and 11 second-place finishes between them -- Byron winning seven individual titles, Jug four, and both teaming to outplay the field in the Minneapolis Four-Ball. Nelson averaged 69.67 strokes per round and earned one-fourth of all the prize money the PGA Tour offered -- $37,968, a record haul even if the loot was in war bonds, which were worth 75 percent of face value. With nearly all of the America's favorite athletes in the service, Nelson stepped into the void as the Associated Press' top male athlete of 1944, the first golfer to win the award since Sarazen's U.S. Open-British Open double in 1932.

But '44 was just a warm-up for greater heroics in 1945, when Nelson doubled the tour record for victories in a season to 18, bettered the previous winning streak record of three consecutive victories by eight and repeated as AP's top male athlete. He also set a new single-season earning record of $63,336, a figure that on today's PGA Tour would be worth close to $10 million. And that's not counting endorsement money.

In the first nine weeks of 1945, Sam Snead, who had been discharged from the Navy the previous fall, won four tournaments (at Los Angeles, Gulfport, Pensacola and Jacksonville) and Nelson won three (Phoenix, Corpus Christi and New Orleans). The Streak didn't get under way until March 11 in Miami where Nelson and McSpaden teamed to win the Miami Four-Ball final, 8 and 6, over Shute and ex-New York Yankees outfielder Sam Byrd. That was followed by wins at the Charlotte Open (by four strokes over Snead in a second 18-hole playoff), Greensboro Open (by eight), Durham Open (by five), Atlanta Open (by nine), Montreal Open (by 10), Philadelphia Invitational (by two), and Chicago Victory Open (by seven).

Byron Nelson & Tiger Woods
Byron Nelson intoduces the 1997 GTE Byron Nelson Classic winner, Tiger Woods.
A tired Nelson headed into the PGA Championship at Dayton in mid-July on an eight-tournament tear, but feeling "like I'm a hundred years old." He then beat Sarazen (4 and 3), Mike Turnesa (1-up), Shute (3 and 2), Claude Harmon (5 and 4), and Byrd (4 and 3) for the title. "I was seven under par," said an exasperated Turnesa, who fired a 68 and then a 67 at Nelson in their 36-hole match. "I don't see how anyone can beat him."

Passing up the St. Paul Open for a week's rest, Nelson returned to action in Chicago, winning the Tam O'Shanter Open and its hefty $13,600 first prize for the fourth time in five years, this time by 11 strokes over runners-up Sarazen and Hogan. That made it 10 in a row. No. 11 came the next week at the Canadian Open in Toronto where Nelson shot even par against a nominal field and won by four. Two weeks later, on Aug. 19, The Streak ended at the Memphis Open with a fourth-place finish behind Freddy Haas, the first amateur to win a tour event since 1936. The pressure off, Nelson rebounded by winning the very next week at the Knoxville Invitational, his 15th victory of the year, by 10 strokes over a field than included Hogan and Snead.

That fall, Nelson won at Spokane with a 266, finished a distant second to Hogan at Portland where Ben broke the world record for 72 holes with a 261 and then trumped his old rival by putting together a 62-68-63-66--259 to win the Seattle Open with an aggregate that would hold up for 10 years. After two months off, Nelson made a curtain call in mid-December, returning to Glen Garden to win the Fort Worth Open for his 18th victory in 12 months.

"Assuming that par on the courses he played averaged 71," wrote historian Herbert Warren Wind, "Byron was about 320 under par for his year's work. [His] average score for 18 holes over 120 tournament rounds, 68.33, was unquestionably the most amazing feat by any golfer since the Grand Slam. It was small wonder that Byron Nelson had thousands of admirers who believed he was the greatest golfer the game had ever known, greater than Jones, greater than [Harry] Vardon."

What his admirers didn't know was that trying to live up to those expectations was wearing Nelson out. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota had determined that the aching back and acute stomach pains that plagued Byron the second half of 1945 were stress related. Nevertheless, he began 1946 by winning the first two tournaments of the year and had six victories by midsummer. He missed a seventh win and his second U.S. Open title when he bogeyed the last hole of regulation at Cleveland and fell into a three-way tie with Vic Ghezzi and Lloyd Mangrum. The following day after they all shot 72 in the first 18-hole playoff, Mangrum, a Purple Heart war veteran, won the second extra round by a stroke with another 72.

Ten weeks later, his nerves frayed and his body weary at 34, Nelson announced that the PGA Championship in August would be his final appearance as a tour regular. When he and Hogan were placed at opposite ends of the draw, golf fans anticipated one last meeting between the game's two best players, 19 years after their first showdown in the Glen Garden caddie tournament.

It never happened. Nelson, with two Masters, two PGAs and a U.S. Open to his credit, lost to Porky Oliver, 1-up, in the quarterfinals. Hogan reached the final where he disposed of Oliver, 6 and 4, to win his first major championship. The torch had been passed. Hogan, who won 13 tournaments in 1946, was now the best player on the tour.

After the Ryder Cup matches in Portland that November, Nelson retired to his small cattle ranch in Roanoke, Texas. In his last three years of competitive golf, Lord Byron had won 32 of 72 tournaments.

He returned every now and then when the spirit moved him, particularly when Augusta called every spring. In the two years that flamboyant fellow Texan Jimmy Demaret won the Masters in 1947 and 1950, Nelson finished second and then tied Hogan for fourth. On a vacation to Europe in 1955, he was talked into giving the French Open a try and won it.

Never known as colorful when he played, television and ABC Sports made Nelson golf's most recognizable color commentator in the 1960s. He was also captain of the successful U.S. Ryder Cup team at Royal Birkdale in 1965 and a widely admired coach of future champions, Tom Watson being his most prominent student.

But Nelson's most lasting tribute came in 1968 when the Dallas Open was renamed the Byron Nelson Classic. The tournament is sponsored by the Sportsmanship Club of Dallas, which donates proceeds to programs that help at-risk youth. "It has meant more to me, golf-wise, than anything," said Nelson in 2000. "The thing of it is, this has been going on for 32 years now and I've been involved with this very unusual group of people. I've never heard or known any one of those men in the Sportsmanship Club to say or do anything that would hurt anybody."

The first three winners of the Dallas Open in the mid-1940s were Nelson, Snead and Hogan.

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