Who Was Byron Nelson?

Byron Nelson in 1944.
Byron Nelson in 1944.

With the AT&T Byron Nelson as this week’s PGA Tour attraction, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a brief look at the man for whom the tournament is named. Nelson is just one of two professional golfers with a PGA Tour tournament as his namesake (Arnold Palmer is the other).

Byron Nelson (Feb 04, 1912 – Sep 26, 2006) is primarily remembered today for his remarkable 1945 season, in which he won 11 straight tournaments—and 18 overall. It’s a record that likely will never be broken. He won 31 of 54 tournaments over the 1944 – 1945 seasons and then did the unthinkable: he retired from professional golf at the age of 36. He had by that time, achieved his goal of earning enough to buy a ranch in Texas.

“When I was playing regularly, I had a goal,” Nelson once said. “I could see the prize money going into the ranch, buying a tractor, or a cow. It gave me incentive.”

Nelson had 63 wins between 1932 and 1946, including the Masters in 1937 and 1942, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945.

Some have discounted his victories, saying that during the war years, he was playing against a limited field. However, the 1945 was at the end of the war, and among the players he defeated that year were Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Jimmy Demaret (all of whom had victories that year). It also should be remembered that in golf, you don’t play against the field as much as you play against the course. In 1945, Nelson destroyed the courses with a 68.33 scoring average, a single season record that stood for 55 years (broken by Tiger Woods in 2000). With a 68 average, he was going to win, no matter who he was playing against.

It’s also recently been revealed that Nelson likely won 12 in a row that year, but always was too much of a gentleman to mention it.

Who Is Byron Nelson?

Nelson was home during the war years because of a blood condition, sometimes reported as hemophilia.

The first inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame, Nelson was given the PGA Tour’s lifetime achievement award in 1997 and was posthumously awarded a Congressional Golf Medal in 2006.

Nelson is considered one of the fathers of the modern golf swing.  His long, smooth motion, combined with more hip action than in earlier eras to get the most out of the “new fangled” steel shafts. He was so consistent that the USGA equipment testing machine is named the “Iron Byron.”

By strange coincidence, the three great golfers of that era—Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead—all were born within seven months of each other. Two, Nelson and Hogan, caddied together at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Their story is documented in a recent book: American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf

A video of Nelson’s swing is below.

However much Nelson is remembered for his on-course achievements, however, his real legacy may be in the very large number of golfers—both amateur and professional—that he mentored over the years. Nelson apparently always had time to encourage literally thousands of young players, to give them a lesson, and to write them letters. Among those he helped: Tom Watson, Ken Venturi, Scott Verplank, and Ben Crenshaw.

Tiger Woods had this to say about Nelson:

I’ll never forget when he pulled me aside … and basically gave his opinion on my game and things that might be pitfalls in the future, what I should do. I was pretty impressionable, a really young kid, and he was a guy I idolized. He didn’t have to do that. It really touched me. Without a doubt, Mr. Nelson has been one of the role models of my life.

By all accounts, Nelson was a gentleman in every sense of the word.  A story about Nelson in Mark Frost’s The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever, illustrates the point. In mid 1950s, Nelson was traveling with Ken Venturi, playing exhibition matches, and mentoring the young rising star:

In each exhibition they played against the host club’s head professional and reigning amateur champion in a best-ball match. At every stop, Byron made a point of inquiring who held the local scoring record, which usually belonged to one or the other of their opponents that day. Byron told Ken that wherever he went, no matter how well he was playing, he should never break that record as a show of respect to his host; that was the way gracious visitors were supposed to behave.

Jack Nicklaus on Byron Nelson:

I think the only thing that rivals Byron’s greatness on a golf course is the manner in which he conducted his life – as a gentleman, a role model and an ambassador.

That Byron Nelson has a tournament named after him is a fitting tribute. I just hope that it remains his memorial for many, many years to come.

For Nelson’s career PGA Tour record, see below:

Byron Nelson PGA Tour Victories

YearNumber of WinsTournaments
19351New Jersey State Open
19361Metropolitan Open
19372The Masters, Belmont Country Club Match Play
19382Thomasville Open, Hollywood Open
19394Phoenix Open, North and South Open, U.S. Open, Western Open
19403Texas Open, Miami Open, PGA Championship
19413Greater Greensboro Open, Tam O’Shanter Open, Miami Open
19423Oakland Open, The Masters, Tam O’Shanter Open
19448San 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
194518Phoenix 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, Chicago Victory National Open, PGA Championship, Tam O’Shanter Open, Canadian Open, Knoxville Invitational, Esmeralda Open, Seattle Open, Glen Garden Open
19466Los Angeles Open, San Francisco Open, New Orleans Open, Houston Open, Columbus Invitational, Chicago Victory National Open
19511Bing Crosby Pro-Am

The article “Who Was Byron Nelson?” was originally published May 25, 2014 on GolfBlogger.Com

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3 thoughts on “Who Was Byron Nelson?”

  1. Awesome article and well said.  I’d love to see more golfers like Byron, but more importantly, I’d like to see more people like him.

    Reply
  2. A great classic old golf swing that would still go well today. I like the way he keeps the right shoulder low and through the ball at impact.

    One of the true greats of the game.

    Reply

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