Born John Byron Nelson, February 4, 1912, in Waxahachie, TX; died of natural causes, September 26, 2006, in Roanoke, TX. Professional golfer. Byron Nelson won 52 professional golf tournaments and dominated the sport during World War II. He won 18 events—including eleven straight—in 1945, before abruptly retiring the following year at age 34. "Nothing prepared the world for the way he dominated his sport in 1944 and 1945," Matt Schudel wrote in the Washington Post. Nelson won the Masters twice among his five major titles.
Nelson, who had bouts with the blood disorder hemophilia, received an exemption from the military during World War II. While he succeeded with many top golfers in the service, he played regularly against two of the game's greats, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Nicknamed "Lord Byron" because of his statesmanlike demeanor, Nelson spent his later years as a golf teacher, broadcaster, and diplomat for the sport. A Professional Golf Association tournament bears his name.
Born and raised on a cotton farm near Waxahachie, Texas, he took up the sport while caddying at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. In 1927 he defeated Hogan for the club caddy title. Nelson turned pro in 1932, teaching at country clubs for 12 years while playing as a pro on the nascent tour. His first-year winnings barely exceeded $100. Nelson popularized the modern golf swing, invented the double-size umbrella, and changed from hickory-shaft clubs to steel, one of the first golfers to do so.
Nelson neither smoked nor drank, rare for golfers of his time. "A down-to-earth work ethic and simple, homespun goodness often overshadowed Nelson's competitive nature," Thomas Bonk wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "In truth, he succeeded in golf beyond his wildest dreams with equal parts of the divergent personalities."
In the first of his two Masters titles, in 1937, Nelson gambled using a 3-wood to shoot over a creek onto the 13th green. He made a 20-foot putt for an eagle (two under par for a hole) and won the event. He took a risk making the shot because "the Lord hates a coward," Nelson said later, according to the Washington Post's Schudel. Two years later, Nelson used a 1-iron, considered the most difficult to master, to win the U.S. Open on a risky 220-yard shot. The World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, displays the ball and club.
Nelson, who won his second Masters in 1942, captured eight tournaments in 1944, for which the Associated Press named him Male Athlete of the Year. The next year, he had the kind of success most athletes can only dream of. His eleven consecutive victories covered a four-and-a-half month span. It started when he beat Snead in a playoff in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In addition to his 18 titles, he finished seven other times. His worst finish was ninth. "Mr. Nelson's feat is often called the golfing equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's record of hitting safely in 56 straight baseball games [for the New York Yankees in 1941]," the Washington Post's Schudel wrote. Nelson talked about it often. "The way people talk about the streak, you'd think I only played one year," Nelson once said, according to the Los Angeles Times' Bonk. "What I did in 1945 was mostly a mental achievement," Nelson added. "In those days I could drive the ball so well that I would really get bored. I just decided I was not going to hit one careless shot. Plus, I had the focus of the ranch." He used his 1945 winnings—roughly $63,000 in war bonds—to purchase a 740-acre ranch near Roanoke, Texas, outside Dallas. He named it Fairway Ranch and lived there until he died.
Some critics have questioned the legitimacy of Nelson's record, given that some of his competition was in the military. "Byron did most of his winning when a lot of guys weren't on tour," Snead said in Bonk's article. "No disrespect to Byron. I mean, eleven straight tournaments. He was a great player. And you can't take that away from him."
After winning six events in 1946, Nelson surprised the sports world and quit the game. He had lost his fire, touring wore him down, and he developed stomach trouble, which he attributed to stress. He welcomed the tranquility of his Texas ranch. "That was where he felt most at home," the Times of London wrote. "He was a quiet man, always happy for others to take the limelight and always keen to return to Texas."
After his retirement, Nelson played sporadically, winning the 1948 Texas PGA, 1951 Bing Crosby tournament, and the 1955 French Open. He competed in the Masters in 1967; he, Snead, and Gene Sarazen were ceremonial starters at the Masters through 2000. The World Golf Hall of Fame inducted him in 1953.
Nelson died at his ranch of natural causes on September 26, 2006, at the age of 94. He is survived by his second wife, Peggy. His first wife, Louise, died in 1985 after a 50-year marriage.
Nelson is the only player to have a tournament named after him. What began as the Byron Nelson Classic is now the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in Irving, Texas. Ironically, Dallas-area native Scott Verplank won the first Nelson tournament after the golf legend's death, in April of 2007. Ver-plank knew Nelson and had played the occasional round with him. Peggy Nelson hugged Verplank after his victory, clutching one of her late husband's trademark fedoras. "Byron would be very, very happy for Scott. I am, too," she said, according to PGATour.com.
Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2006, p. B10; New York Times, September 27, 2006, p. C14; PGA Tour, http://www.pgatour.com/2007/tournaments/r019/04/29/nelson042907.ap/index.html (May 5, 2007); Times (London), September 28, 2006, p. 70; Washington Post, September 27, 2006, p. B8.