The world of golf is in mourning today after the announcement that one of its greatest ever players, Byron Nelson, passed away on Tuesday at his home in Texas aged 94. Often referred to by his nickname of ?Lord Byron? due to his elegant style of play and his gentle personality, his death has given us all a chance to re-examine an unparalleled career in golf.
Nelson (pictured) was born in Waxahachie, Texas, in February 1912 ? a year that gifted the game three enormous talents. Within a period of six months during that year, Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were all born, making those few months very special indeed for students of the sport?s greatest ever players.
Having enjoyed a remarkable career on the USPGA Tour, which included five Major championships, Nelson shocked the sporting world by announcing his retirement from full time golf in 1946 at the age of 34, in order to spend more time at his beloved Texas ranch. He is best remembered for his battles with Snead and Hogan and his extraordinary season in 1945, when he won eleven consecutive tournaments and eighteen in all. Both are marks that are unlikely to ever be equalled. When it is considered that he also won thirteen tournaments in 1944, his record over two seasons was an incomparable thirty-one wins in fifty-four starts.
There are a couple of widely discussed myths that surround Nelson?s run of tournament victories in 1944 and 1945. While it is true that many fields were reduced due to several players serving in the armed forces during World War Two, Nelson still had to defeat two of the game?s greatest players ? the two men born within six months of him. Sam Snead was indeed a member of the US Navy in 1945 but he still managed to start in twenty-seven US Tour events, winning six of them. Hogan juggled his golf with his duties in the Army Air Force but still played in nineteen events and won five. Nelson, who was excluded from military service due to blood problems, played in thirty-one tournaments and won eighteen.
The other myth, particularly relevant to comparisons between Nelson?s ability and that of today?s professionals, is that he played on easier courses ? a reason often cited when writers and pundits claim that his extraordinary season in 1945 can never be repeated by today?s ‘more challenged’ pros. There is no doubt that greens were flatter, rough was less penal and players were allowed to play from improved lies in the 1940s, but when you consider the poor condition of those courses, the lack of today?s scientific equipment and the fact that Nelson had to travel thousands of miles across America by car, his record is far from diminished. His 1945 scoring average of 68.33 grants him legendary status regardless of his era ? and his average in the final round of tournaments that year, 67.68, was even better.
Another remarkable statistic of Nelson?s career is his 113 consecutive cuts made, second only to the 142 consecutive cuts made by Tiger Woods. However, closer inspection of these statistics makes Nelson?s total the more impressive. The US Tour defines a ?cut? as finishing in the money, i.e. receiving prize money. Today, all players who make the halfway cut receive prize money, typically eighty players. In Nelson?s relatively impoverished era only those finishing in the top twenty received prize money ? meaning that Nelson had 113 consecutive top twenty finishes. Great as he undoubtedly is, the most consecutive top twenty finishes Woods has achieved thus far in his career is 21.
Though he retired from full-time golf in 1946, Nelson continued to play in certain events ? most notably the Masters where, as a distinguished former champion, he became one of the honorary starters in the event alongside Snead and Gene Sarazen. It was a tradition he remained involved in until 2001, when he hit his final opening tee shot at the age of 89.
In 1968 the USPGA Tour honoured Nelson by re-naming the Dallas Open the Byron Nelson Classic, which is still one of the most popular stops on the pro circuit today. Six years later he was decorated twice more, winning the Bob Jones Award for outstanding contribution in golf and securing a unanimous election into the World Golf Hall Of Fame. In 2000, the celebrated and influential US magazine Golf Digest celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by compiling a list of the top fifty golfers of all time. Nelson found himself in fifth place ? behind only Jack Nicklaus, Hogan, Snead and Bobby Jones.
His ?Lord Byron? nickname was a product of his gentle demeanour, impeccable manners and indefatigable enthusiasm for the sport, which continued right up until his death yesterday. No cause of death has been announced, with reports coming out America that he simply died of old age, peacefully in his sleep. If correct, it is a fitting end to the long and glorious life of one of golf?s most gentle characters.
“I don’t know very much,” he said in typically modest fashion in a 1997 interview.
“I know about golf, I know how to make a good stew and I know how to be a decent human being.”
BYRON NELSON ? TRIBUTES
?You can always argue who was the greatest player, but Byron is the finest gentleman the game has ever known.? ? former US Open champion Ken Venturi
?I played some pretty good golf from time to time, but I never played anything like Byron does.? ? Bobby Jones
?I don?t think anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning eleven tournaments in a row. But I suppose that is not the most admirable thing that he did, although it was certainly tremendous. More importantly he was a fantastic person whom I admired from the time I was a boy.? ? Arnold Palmer
?The nicest man and the most consistent golfer ever to play the game.? ? Ben Crenshaw
?Despite his extraordinary career, I will remember Byron most for the genuineness and gentleness that he brought to all around him. I will miss him and I will never forget what he taught me.? ? Nelson?s former pupil Tom Watson
MAJOR CHAMPIONSHIP HONOURS/VICTORIES
1937 ? US Masters
1939 ? US Open; Vardon Trophy winner
1940 ? USPGA Championship
1942 ? US Masters
1945 ? USPGA Championship
1965 ? Winning US Ryder Cup captain
1974 ? Bob Jones Award; elected to World Golf Hall Of Fame