Friday, June 1, 2012

Byron Nelson

By Dennis Sherrard

Byron Nelson (1912-2006)
Byron Nelson was born just south of Dallas near a small town called Waxahachie, Texas.  Nelson and his family moved to Fort Worth when he was 11 years old.  During this time, Nelson contracted Typhoid Fever and almost died from the illness which saw him lose almost half his body weight and leave him unable to have children.  When he was 12, he started caddying at Glen Garden Country Club, and at age 14, competed with fellow caddy Ben Hogan for the Caddy Championship which Nelson won in a 9 hole playoff.

After deciding to become a professional in 1932, at age 20, Nelson won enough money through a pair of top-three finishes to support his movement into the role of Club Professional at the Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey.  Nelson would stay in New Jersey until 1934, which saw him come back to Texas as the head pro at a golf club in Texarkana.   Playing golf in an era that saw a transition from hickory shafted clubs to steel shafted clubs, Nelson became an architect of the modern golf swing that saw more of a full swing with increased leg drive leading the down swing.  This is basically the model that all golfers use today, and few do it as well as Nelson did.

The first professional tournament Nelson won was in 1935, and he would go on in his career to win 51 more times.   He won his first major championship with a win over fellow Texan Ralph Guldahl at the Masters in 1937.  Nelson would win the US Open in 1939, and the PGA Championship in 1940, a second Masters in 1942 and his final Major Championship in 1945 with another victory at the PGA Championship in 1945.  

1945 was a record year that will likely never be repeated.  Byron Nelson won 18 of the 35 tournaments scheduled that year.  That's 51% or one out of every two tournaments played during 1945.  Probably the most amazing feat is a record 11 victories in a row.  This record is analogous to Joe Dimaggio's hitting streak of 56 straight games.  The record is amazing in that it has not been broken and the closest anyone has come to the record for a single season is when Ben Hogan had 6 in a row in 1948.  Tiger Woods won 7 in a row in the overlapping 2006-2007 seasons.  So, it is remarkable that this record has withstood the onslaught of golfers like Hogan, Snead, Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson, Norman, Woods, etc.  This may be just one of those records that will never be broken. 

One other terrific record that is not an official statistic, but bears repeating.   During Nelson's career you made money if you were in the 'cut'.  Today you make money as well, but during his time frame, being in the 'cut' meant you finished in the Top 20 of the tournament.  Nelson made the 'cut' 113 consecutive times.  The means he was in the Top 20 of the tournaments 113 consecutive times.  Amazing.

Byron retired from a full schedule of competitive golf after 1946, only playing afterward a few times in the Masters and as a member of the 1947 Ryder Cup Team.   He won the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in 1951, which was his last professional victory.

Mr. Nelson's love was his ranch that he had purchased in the 1945.  About 500 acres outside of Roanoke, Texas (near Fort Worth), Nelson would raise his cattle and teach and mentor young golfers such as Ken Venturi and Tom Watson.  Nelson was a strong member of his community and church, and spent many hours doing charitable work teaching youngsters the fundamentals of golf. 

In 1944, Byron Nelson won a golf tournament called the Texas Victory Open at Lakewood Country Club in Dallas.  This tournament was the forerunner of the tournaments named the Dallas Open (1945-1946), the Dallas Centennial Open (May, 1956), The Texas International Open (June, 1956), The Dallas Open Invitational (1957-1967), and subsequently the Byron Nelson Golf Classic (from 1968-1987).  Since 1988, the tournament has been sponsored by companies such as GTE, Verizon, EDS, and HP but always with Byron's name attached to the title.  Mr. Nelson attended the Championship for many years always perched on a chair near the 18th green and would stand and greet every player that came off the course.  Many players to this day speak of the honor of getting to meet Mr. Nelson and have him thank them personally for attending his tournament. 

Mr. Nelson died in 2006 but his legacy as one of the nicest men and best mentors the game ever had lives on through his pupils like Tom Watson.  Watson said his career was in a shambles in the early 70's and then one day Mr. Nelson called him and invited him down to Texas.   Byron and Tom worked together and soon Tom was winning again on tour.  Watson credits Byron for saving his golf game.   Mr. Nelson's numbers:  52 professional victories, 5 Major Championships, 13 Top 5 finishes, and 9 Top 10 finishes.

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