Byron Nelson (1 US Open, 2 Masters, 2 USPGA, 2 Ryder Cup's)
1912 - 2006
ohn Byron Nelson, Jr. (February 4, 1912 – September 26, 2006) was an American professional golfer between 1935 and 1946, one of the greats not only in his day but over the history of the sport.
Nelson and two other legendary champions of the time, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, were born within seven months of each other in 1912. Although he won many tournaments in the course of his relatively brief career, he is mostly remembered today for having won 11 consecutive tournaments and 18 total tournaments in 1945. He retired officially at the age of 34 to be a rancher, later becoming a commentator and lending his name to the HP Byron Nelson Championship, the first PGA Tour event to be named for a professional golfer. As a former Masters champion he continued to play in that annual tournament, placing in the top-10 six times between 1947 and 1955 and as high as 15th in 1965. In 1974, Byron Nelson received the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf.
Nelson became the second recipient of the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. He received the 1994 Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, GCSAA's highest honor. Nelson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.
Born near Waxahachie, Texas, Byron Nelson was the son of Madge Allen Nelson and John Byron Nelson, Sr. His parents set a precedent for him not only in their long lives — Madge Nelson lived to age 98, and her husband to age 77 — but also in their religious commitment. Madge, who had grown up Baptist, was baptized in the Church of Christ at age 18, and John Byron Sr., raised Presbyterian, was baptized in the Church of Christ soon after meeting Madge. The senior Byron Nelson went on to serve as an elder in the Roanoke Church of Christ, and the younger Byron Nelson was a committed member of that congregation — even performing janitorial services there from time to time long after he became famous – he later placed his membership at the Hilltop Church of Christ in Roanoke from 1989 until 2000, when he moved his membership to the Richland Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas in later life.
When Nelson was 11 years old, the family moved to Fort Worth, where he barely survived typhoid fever after losing nearly half his body weight to the disease, which also left him unable to sire children. Soon after his baptism at age 12, he started caddying at Glen Garden Country Club. On his caddying days, Nelson said, "I knew nothing about caddying at first, but it wasn't difficult to learn. The other caddies, though, didn't like to see any new ones, because that might mean they wouldn't get a job sometime." An article on Nelson in Sports Illustrated noted that initially caddies were not permitted to play at the club: "[H]e would often practice in the dark, putting his white handkerchief over the hole so he could find it in the darkness." The club later changed its policy and sponsored the Glen Garden Caddy Tournament, where a 14-year-old Nelson beat fellow caddy and future golf great Ben Hogan by a single stroke after a nine-hole playoff. Nelson and Hogan were rivals but close friends in their teen years, and for the first part of their professional careers as well, but Nelson's early success was difficult for the struggling Hogan to deal with, and they gradually grew apart, while retaining mutual respect.
After turning professional in 1932, Nelson served as a club professional in Texas, and played as many significant tournaments as he could afford, to develop his game. Money was tight, as Texas was hit very hard by the Great Depression. A pair of top-three finishes in important Texas events encouraged him. He then took a club professional's job at the Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey in 1935. He worked hard on his game, having earlier realized that with the technological change from hickory to steel shafts, which was gathering momentum in the early 1930s, that the golf swing would have to adapt as well. Nelson was among the first of a new generation of players who developed a full swing with increased leg drive leading the downswing; this is the forerunner of modern golf technique as practiced by top players, right to the present day. Nelson is sometimes credited as being the father of the modern golf swing. He refined the changes for a couple of years, and then took his game to the highest level of competition, the PGA Tour. Nelson waited until 1935 to post his first significant victory, at the New Jersey State Open. He followed this up with a win at the Metropolitan Open the following year. He reportedly won this tournament with "$5 in my pocket".
In 1937, Nelson was hired as the head professional at the Reading Country Club in Reading, Pennsylvania, and worked there until 1940, when he took a new job as head pro at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.
Nelson won his first major title at The Masters in 1937, two shots ahead of runner-up Ralph Guldahl. During this tournament he shot a first-round 66, which was the lowest first round score at the Masters until 1976, when Raymond Floyd had 65 en route to his victory. Nelson won four more majors, the U.S. Open in 1939, the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945, and a second Masters in 1942. Nelson had a blood disorder that caused his blood to clot four times slower than normal, which kept him out of military service during World War II. It has sometimes mistakenly been reported that he had hemophilia; this is not true. During the war, Nelson gave hundreds of golf exhibitions across the country to raise money for charitable causes.
Nelson won the Vardon Trophy in 1939. He played on two Ryder Cup teams, in 1937 and 1947, and was non-playing captain in 1965. After 1946, Nelson curtailed his schedule, although he continued to make regular appearances at The Masters as a competitor, played occasional Tour events, appeared in a few overseas tournaments, and later served as a ceremonial starter for many years.
In 1945 Nelson enjoyed a record-breaking year, winning 18 of 35 PGA tournaments including 11 in a row. Both records are still yet to be beaten. Nelson however lost many chances at major championships during this year, and previous years, because of the war, and only won the 1945 PGA Championship. There has been debate to how impressive these results are, as it was believed to be a weakened tour due to the war. But in reality many of the leading golfers of that time, including Sam Snead and Ben Hogan still played a full or at least part schedule that year. Both Snead and Hogan won multiple times on the tour in 1945. During this year Nelson finished second another 7 times, set a record for the scoring average (68.33 for 18 holes) that was broken by Tiger Woods in 2000, a record 18 hole score (62), and a record 72-hole score (259, which beat the previous record set by Ben Hogan earlier that year). This year is now known as the greatest single year by a player on the PGA Tour, as Arnold Palmer said: "I don't think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year." Even more recently, Tiger Woods referred to the year as "one of the greatest years in the history of the sport."
Nelson's record of 113 consecutive cuts made is second only to Tiger Woods' 142. The PGA Tour defines a "cut" as receiving a paycheck, even if an event has no cut per se. In Nelson's era, only the top 20 in a tournament received a check. In reality, Nelson's "113 consecutive cuts made" are representative of his unequaled 113 consecutive top 20 tournament finishes.
Nelson retired officially at the relatively early age of 34 to be a rancher, later becoming a commentator and lending his name to the Byron Nelson Golf Classic, the first PGA Tour event to be named for a professional golfer. As a former Masters champion he continued to play in that annual tournament, placing in the top-10 six times between 1947 and 1955, and as high as 15th in 1965.
Over nearly 70 years in the golf game, Nelson played with many celebrities and well-known personalities, including: Roone Arledge, Bing Crosby, James Garner, Bob Hope, Bobby Knight, Randolph Scott, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Weissmuller, Lawrence Welk, and Babe Zaharias.
Nelson died Tuesday, September 26, 2006. According to a family friend, Nelson died at his Roanoke, Texas home around noon. He was survived by Peggy, his wife of nearly 20 years, sister Margaret Ellen Sherman, and brother Charles, a professor emeritus at Abilene Christian University, where Byron Nelson had been a trustee and benefactor. Nelson met his second wife, the former Peggy Simmons, when she volunteered at the Bogie Busters celebrity golf tournament in Dayton, Ohio in 1985.
Nelson was often referred to as "Lord Byron", after the English poet by that name, in recognition of his reputation for gentlemanly conduct, a nickname given him by Atlanta sports journalist O. B. Keeler. Many of his obituaries referenced this reputation.
Nelson had several successful years as a television golf commentator. Nelson had a significant role in the development of Tom Watson as a world-class player in the mid-1970s, and had earlier mentored Ken Venturi in the 1950s, while he was a rising star.
Nelson was ranked as the fifth greatest golfer of all time by Golf Digest magazine in 2000. On this list, Jack Nicklaus was first, Nelson's longtime rivals Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were second and third respectively, and Bobby Jones was fourth. A 2009 Sports Illustrated panel ranked him seventh on its list of all-time greatest golfers, behind Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Jones, Hogan, Snead, and Arnold Palmer.
The "Iron Byron" electro-mechanical machine or robot, developed by Battelle Memorial Institute and True Temper Sports and used by the United States Golf Association and golf manufacturers to compare and test clubs and balls for conformity to standards, was named for Nelson, honoring the consistency of his swing.
In Jack Nicklaus's 1978 book On and Off the Fairway, Nicklaus wrote that Nelson was the straightest golfer he ever saw. The two never played competitively, but a 14-year-old Nicklaus was in the crowd of youngsters at the 1954 U.S. Junior Amateur, when Nelson gave an exhibition hitting golf shots.
State Highway 114 Business through Roanoke, Texas is named Byron Nelson Boulevard, in honor of Nelson's residence; the street he lived on was recently changed to Eleven Straight Lane in honor of his 1945 record. In Irving, Texas a street immediately adjacent to the Four Seasons Resort and Club, where the HP Byron Nelson Championship is played each year, is named Byron Nelson Lane. A street in Southlake, Texas, Byron Nelson Parkway, was named in his honor, as was a street in a residential neighborhood in McAllen, Texas.
On October 16, 2006, President George W. Bush approved H.R. 4902 awarding Byron Nelson the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award that can be bestowed by the Legislative Branch of the United States government. The resolution cites Mr. Nelson's "significant contributions to the game of golf as a player, a teacher, and a commentator." Representative Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) sponsored the resolution, originally proposed March 8, 2006, well before Nelson's death. Senate Resolution 602 memorialized Nelson on September 29, 2006.
On April 23, 2007 the Northwest Independent School District named their second high school Byron Nelson High School. This is the first high school named in honor of Byron Nelson, and opened in the fall of 2009. The school is located in Trophy Club, Texas, near Nelson's hometown of Roanoke.
PGA Tour wins (52)
- 1935 (1) New Jersey State Open
- 1936 (1) Metropolitan Open
- 1937 (2) Masters Tournament, Belmont Country Club Match Play
- 1938 (2) Thomasville Open, Hollywood Open
- 1939 (4) Phoenix Open, North and South Open, U.S. Open, Western Open
- 1940 (3) Texas Open, Miami Open, PGA Championship
- 1941 (3) Greater Greensboro Open, Tam O'Shanter Open, Miami Open
- 1942 (3) Oakland Open, Masters Tournament, Tam O'Shanter Open
- 1944 (8) San Francisco Victory Open, Knoxville War Bond Tournament, New York Red Cross Tourney, Minneapolis Four-Ball (with Harold "Jug" McSpaden), Tam O'Shanter Open, Nashville Open, Texas Victory Open, San Francisco Open
- 1945 (18) Phoenix Open, Corpus Christi Open, New Orleans Open, Miami International Four-Ball (with Harold "Jug" McSpaden), Charlotte Open, Greater Greensboro Open, Durham Open, Atlanta Open, Montreal Open, Philadelphia Inquirer Open, Chicago Victory National Open, PGA Championship, Tam O'Shanter Open, Canadian Open, Knoxville Invitational, Esmeralda Open, Seattle Open, Glen Garden Open
- 1946 (6) Los Angeles Open, San Francisco Open, New Orleans Open, Houston Open, Columbus Invitational, Chicago Victory National Open
- 1951 (1) Bing Crosby Pro-Am
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N.D. Photograph of Byron Nelson 5 time major Champion and winner of 52 PGA tour titles. Quite Unique. ; Provenance; Part of a collection of letters and photographs to Bob Blyth of Dundee, Scotland who corresponded with various American and international Golfers over a long period of time. Blyth was.....
United States of America: U.S.G.A., 1941. Photographs within, including a two-page aerial view of the Colonial Club links. 25.5x16.3 cm. (10x6½"), original white saddle-stitched wrappers, with colour photograph illustration on front cover. With articles on two favorites to win, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. The winner of the 1941 US.....
United States of America: U.S.G.A., 1941. Photographs within, including a two-page aerial view of the Colonial Club links. 25.5x16.3 cm. (10x6½"), original white saddle-stitched wrappers, with colour photograph illustration on front cover. Complete with draw sheet.With articles on two favorites to win, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. The winner of.....
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New York: Hyperion, 2007. 259p. cloth. Scarce 1st impression. In 1956, a casual bet between two millionaires eventually pitted two of the greatest golfers of the era-Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan - against top amateurs Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. The year: 1956. Four decades have passed since Eddie Lowery.....