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Obituaries

Byron Nelson; Gentleman of Golf Won a Record 18 Events in 1945

Byron Nelson, holding the Wannamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship in 1939, was known as Lord Byron for his elegant swing and gentle manner.  He won five majors before retiring at the age of 34. (AP File Photo)
Byron Nelson, holding the Wannamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship in 1939, was known as Lord Byron for his elegant swing and gentle manner. He won five majors before retiring at the age of 34. (AP File Photo)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Byron Nelson, a gentlemanly golfer whose record-setting 1945 season is considered one of the greatest achievements in sports history, died Sept. 26 at his ranch near Roanoke, Tex. His wife found the 94-year-old golf legend sitting on the back porch of their home. No cause of death has been determined.

By the late 1930s, Mr. Nelson had established himself as one of the country's premier golfers, winning the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open, but nothing prepared the world for the way he dominated his sport in 1944 and 1945.

Exempted from military service because of hemophilic tendencies, Mr. Nelson won eight tournaments in 1944 and was named the top male athlete in the world by the Associated Press. The next year, he was even better.

He won 18 of the 31 tournaments he entered, including 11 in a row. Neither mark has been equaled or seriously challenged in the 61 years since. Two other golfers -- Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods -- have won six tournaments in a row.

Mr. Nelson's 11-win string began in Miami and ended with his victory in the Canadian Open. Many leading golfers were in the military at the time serving in World War II, but two of Mr. Nelson's steady competitors that year were Hogan and Sam Snead.

"Nelson has made golf the only sport in the United States that is better than it was before the war," a Life magazine writer noted.

Mr. Nelson's feat is often called the golfing equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's record of hitting safely in 56 straight baseball games.

"That goes down as one of the greatest streaks in all of sports," Woods has said. "I see Joe DiMaggio's record being broken more so than someone winning 11 golf tournaments. It's truly amazing."

Mr. Nelson's 1945 scoring mark of 68.33 strokes per round was not broken until Woods averaged 68.17 in 2000.

In 1946, Mr. Nelson won six tournaments before abruptly retiring at age 34 to the Texas ranch he bought with his winnings. He received $66,000 in 1945 and $182,000 during his career.

"Each drive, each iron, each chip, each putt was aimed at the goal of getting that ranch," he wrote in his 1993 autobiography, "How I Played the Game." "And each win meant another cow, another acre, another 10 acres, another part of the down payment."

Known widely as "Lord Byron," a nickname bestowed on him in the 1930s, Mr. Nelson made sporadic golfing appearances in the decade after retiring and won the French Open in 1955. Mostly, though, he spent his time as a golf teacher, television commentator and revered elder statesman of the sport.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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