`Lord' of the links reigned supreme

His 11 wins in a row in '45 still unmatched

Byron Nelson 1912-2006

September 27, 2006|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Nelson, lord of links, dies at 94 Byron Nelson, whose record of winning 11 consecutive professional golf events in 1945 remains one of sports' most unassailable records, died yesterday at his home in Roanoke, Texas. He was 94.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiners office announced Nelson's death, according to the Associated Press. He died of natural causes.

"The golf world suffered a devastating loss with the passing of a true gentleman, Byron Nelson. He was a legend who transcended generations. ... Our players, young and old, looked to Byron as a consummate role model of our sport," said PGA commissioner Tim Finchem.

Born on his parents' cotton farm near Waxahachie, Texas, Nelson worked his way off the farm and out of the caddie shack to become a superstar in a golden generation of golfers that had more than its share including Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen.

Known as "Lord Byron," Nelson won 52 tournaments - more than any other player except for Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan and Arnold Palmer - and five major championships.

Nelson's pinnacle of success was the 1945 season in which he won 18 of the 30 official tournaments he played, including a record 11 in succession, an almost unimaginable feat of prowess that spanned 4 1/2 months.

It remains the best year for any golfer in history.

Over the course of 118 competitive rounds of stroke play events in 1945, Nelson's scoring average was 68.33 and he was 320 strokes under par.

Tiger Woods came closest to Nelson's total when he won six consecutive tournaments in 2000.

"Scoring and playing are two different games," Nelson said in a 1985 interview. "And if I was playing well, I'd just go play. I remember Bobby Jones saying when he was playing well, he was only thinking about one thing. But if he had to think about two things, he would play mediocre and if he thought about three things, he would be terrible."

Nelson never tired of speaking about his streak, which was often compared, in terms of difficulty, to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak with the New York Yankees.

"The way people talk about the streak, you'd think I only played one year," Nelson once said.

Nelson won six more times in 1946, but found the burden of playing the circuit too much. He experienced extreme stomach problems that he linked to the pressure and yearned for a quiet life back in Texas. He walked away from the professional tour at age 34.

"I asked him once, `Why did you quit?'" Snead once said. "And he told me, `I got so sick when the streak was over. I don't know. It did something to me. I didn't care for it anymore.'"

John Byron Nelson Jr. was born Feb. 4, 1912 - the same year as Snead and Hogan.

As a teen, Nelson learned he could make some extra money as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, where he met another young caddie for the first time - Hogan.

In 1926 when Nelson was 14, there was a nine-hole caddie championship played at Glen Garden, and he sank a long putt on the last hole to tie for the title.

"I tied with a small boy named Ben Hogan," Nelson wrote. "The members decided to play nine more holes. I was fortunate and won by one shot."

Nelson soon learned that he had a gift for playing golf.

"I have big hands, but with a lot of feel," he once said. "The Lord gave me good coordination, a great rhythm and wonderful balance. I had an absolutely uncanny judgment of distance. And even though folks couldn't always see it, I had a very big desire to achieve. I got pretty steamed up inside."

Nelson turned pro at 20 in 1932 and was not successful. In his first two years on the tour, Nelson won a total of just over $100, so he needed another way to support himself. Now 6 feet 1 and a lean 170 pounds, Nelson found a new driver and developed a method of striking the ball that eliminated the hook he had built into his swing. What Nelson accomplished has been called the model of the modern golf swing - an aggressive lower body action and a square club positioning.

In April 1937, he stepped onto a new, grander stage of his life when he arrived at Augusta, Ga., for the Masters.

Nelson had already played it twice, in 1935 when it was just a year old, and in 1936. He had done well both times, a tie for ninth and a tie for 13th, but Nelson thought he could do better. He opened the 1937 tournament with a 66, finished at 5-under 283 and won by two shots over Ralph Guldahl.

Nelson also won the 1942 Masters in an 18-hole playoff when he beat Hogan by one shot.

Nelson was rejected from military service during World War II because he was a hemophiliac and he received some off-hand criticism for being able to play golf while others, such as Hogan, were called to duty. There were others who hinted that Nelson's successes and his record of 11 consecutive tournament victories were tainted because they came during a war year.

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