Nelson, (John) Byron, Jr.

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NELSON, (John) Byron, Jr.

(b. 4 February 1912 in Waxahachie, Texas), golfer who developed the modern golf swing and ranks with the greatest American players during the first half of the twentieth century.

Nelson was one of three children of John Nelson, a farmer and agricultural merchant, and Madge Nelson, a homemaker. The Nelson family lived in a modest house beside the Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. At age twelve Nelson joined his contemporary, Ben Hogan, as a caddy at the club. However, unlike Hogan, Nelson was a natural golfer who began to shoot low scores soon after taking up the game. He had the additional advantage of being singled out for instruction by the club professionals, Ted Longworth and his assistants, Dick and Jack Grout (the latter became Jack Nicklaus's lifelong coach and mentor).

Nelson turned professional in 1932 on the cusp of the Great Depression, at a time when the dominant figures of the 1920s—Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen—were retired or past their apogees. "Golf without Jones," historian Herbert Warren Wind has written, "was like France without Paris—leaderless, lightless, and lonely." Nelson was the first of the 1912 triumvirate—Sam Snead and Hogan shared Nelson's birth year—to reach the pinnacle of golfing excellence, and the first to reinject excitement into the game.

During his relatively short career, Nelson won sixty-one tournaments, which included fifty-four events sanctioned by the Professional Golf Association (PGA), among them five majors: the Masters (1937 and 1942), the U.S. Open (1939), and the PGA Championship (1940 and 1945). He won his first notable tournament, the Southwest Amateur, in 1930. Strapped for funds, he turned professional, achieving moderate success but not enough (given the small purses of the day) to give up his "day job" as a golf professional at a club in Texarkana, on the border of Texas and Arkansas. In 1935 he moved to the Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey as an assistant pro, where he began to adapt his swing to the new steel shafted clubs. By 1936 the change produced results when he won the Metropolitan Open, a PGA sectional (New YorkNew Jersey) in which he competed against well-known professionals Craig Wood and Tommy Armour.

The following year Nelson came to the attention of golfing fans with a dramatic performance in the 1937 Masters, where he made up a six-stroke deficit in two holes in the final round to win his first major. That year he won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average. He won the U.S. Open in 1939 in a grueling thirty-six-hole playoff in which he hit his one-iron into the fourth hole for an eagle two during the final eighteen. That year he also won the Western Open and the North and South.

In 1940 Nelson won three tournaments including his third major, the PGA Championship, beating Sam Snead one-up by birdying two of the final three holes. Nelson played on four U.S. Ryder Cup teams (1937, 1939, 1941, and 1947), and in 1965 he was the team's nonplaying captain.

In 1942 Nelson won the Masters again, this time by a single stroke in a memorable battle against Hogan. Rejected from military service because of hemophilia, Nelson continued to play during World War II. In 1944 he won thirteen of the twenty-three events he played, and he was the leading money winner with a record $37,000.

During 1945, the most remarkable year of his career , "Lord Byron," as Nelson was called, set a record that is not likely to ever be bettered. He won eleven consecutive PGA tournaments. (No one else has ever done better than six.) Moreover, he amassed a total of eighteen victories in the thirty-one tournaments he entered that year, and he was the runner-up in seven others.

Nelson's 1945 performance has produced a simmering debate among golf historians and fans. Did his records signify extraordinary talent or the lack of competition during the war? Perhaps the appropriate conclusion is "some of each," but as golf journalists and historians have pointed out, his two primary challengers, Snead and Hogan, played in several of those 1945 tournaments. Furthermore, all but one of the events was stroke play, in which it is the course rather than the other competitors against which the game is played. His stroke average for the year was a remarkable 68.33, another record that has never been broken.

At the end of the 1945 season Nelson was physically exhausted and mentally drained. He had always considered golf a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Nelson and his wife, Louise, wanted more than anything else to spend the better part of their lives on a Texas cattle ranch and, as he tells it, "Each drive, each iron, each chip, each putt was aimed at the goal of getting that ranch." In 1946, at the age of thirty-four, Nelson retired from regular competition and moved to his newly acquired 750-acre Fairway Ranch in Roanoke, Texas.

But Nelson did not abandon golf. When television discovered the game, Nelson was among the original golf analysts on the American Broadcasting Companies' ABC-TV. He also hosted the annual Byron Nelson Classic, a PGA tournament in Irving, Texas, near Dallas. And with Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, Nelson continued to appear annually at the Masters to hit one of the honorary opening tee shots.

The advancement of technology has had a significant impact on sports, and golf is no exception. The development of the golf ball and the golf club (as well as the course itself) have revolutionized how golf is played. Whippy hickory shafts were best controlled by bending the left elbow (for right-handed golfers) in the backswing, followed by a relatively flat downswing that emphasized fast hands and a quiet body. Bobby Jones was the first major golfer to modify this classic "Saint Andrews" swing by adopting a straight left arm in his backswing. But Jones's hands still led and controlled the downswing, and his lower body remained a platform rather than a piston.

Beginning with Jones's straight left arm, Nelson invented the modern golf swing to fit the firmer steel shafts that came into vogue during the 1930s. Over six feet tall, he began to experiment with harnessing the potential power of his long lower body by making it more active in his take-away and unleashing it in a more vertical downswing by driving forward hard with his legs. This made his arms and hands centrifugal extensions of his large body muscles, which he dipped as his club came in contact with the ball. The result was prodigious power and unprecedented accuracy, resulting in what some insist was the best golf swing on the planet. If Nelson had played in the television age, his supporter's argue, this view would be widely shared.

Nelson's swing was so fluid and close to perfection that the United States Golf Association (USGA) designed its automatic ball-testing machine to emulate it. The "Iron Byron," in use beginning in 1976, flight tested golf balls for conformity, distance, and accuracy. It was finally retired in 2001.

Nelson's achievements have been recognized over the decades. In 1944 and 1945 he was the Associated Press Athlete of the Year. In 1953 he was elected into the PGA Hall of Fame. In 1955 the Texas Sports Hall of Fame honored him, as did the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. In 1974 he also received the Bobby Jones Award for his contributions to golf.

In October 1985 his wife, Louise, died after a long illness. In 1986 Nelson met Peggy Simmons, forty years his junior, and married her after a brief courtship. A journalist, she helped Nelson compose his biography, How I Played the Game.

Nelson's autobiography is How I Played the Game (1993). The only full-length biography is Martin Davis, Byron Nelson: The Story of Golf's Finest Gentleman and the Greatest Winning Streak in History (1997).

Martin Sherwin