Just as there is no argument that perfection in golf is unattainable, no one argues that Byron Nelson has come the closest to attaining it.
Nelson’s streak of 11 victories in a row in 1945 is considered the least attainable record not only in golf, but in sports. His total of 18 victories that year, seven second-place finishes, his 19 consecutive rounds under 70 and his scoring average of 68.33 (and 67.45 in the fourth round) set the standard for the greatest single season in the history of the game.
"I actually felt like I moved my head back while my body went forward."
Nelson is the player most often compared to a machine. In fact, when the USGA developed a mechanical device for testing golf balls and clubs, it named it “Iron Byron.” Nelson was also a kind man of quiet dignity for whom the nickname, Lord Byron, fits as well.
“As a competitor, Byron was able to be mean and tough and intimidating-and pleasant,” said Ken Venturi, whom Nelson mentored. “You can always argue who was the greatest player, but Byron is the finest gentleman the game has ever known.”
In a relatively brief career, Nelson won 54 sanctioned tournaments, including the Masters in 1937 and 1942, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945. In the ’40s, he finished in the money 113 straight times. He retired from full-time competition in 1946.
Nelson was born Feb. 4, 1912, outside Waxahachie, Texas, the son of a cotton farmer. He and a boy from the other side of Fort Worth, Ben Hogan, both caddied at the Glen Garden C.C., where young Byron defeated Ben in a playoff for the caddy championship in 1927. Nelson turned pro in 1932.
Tall and rangy at 6-1 with enormous hands, Nelson achieved the pinnacle by developing an action that is considered the basis for the modern golf swing. Coming of age just as the steel shaft was replacing hickory, Nelson learned that using the big muscles in the hips and legs could be a more reliable, powerful and effective way to hit a golf ball than the more wristy method that had been employed in the era of hickory. Nelson was particularly noteworthy for the way his swing was more upright and along the target line, employing a full shoulder turn with restricted wrist cock, and for the way he kept his knees flexed in the downswing.
When Nelson was developing his swing, he would sometimes be stricken with episodes of shanking until he found a forward swing correction. “I actually felt like I moved my head back while my body went forward,” he said. “The more I did that, the better I got.” Nelson also believed one of the keys to his ability was an uncanny sense for judging distance.
Nelson reached his peak as World War II was ending. In 75 starts from 1944 to the end of 1946, he won 34 times and finished second 16 times. In those three years, he finished out of the top 10 just once, with a tie for 13th at Pensacola in 1946. Arnold Palmer, who grew up with Nelson as his idol, said, “Byron Nelson accomplished things on the pro tour that never have been and never will be approached.”
Nelson retired from full-time competition after that 1946 season, settling down at 34 to a Texas ranch whose purchase had been a large part of his motivation when he was winning so often. His last official victory was the 1952 Bing Crosby Pro-Am, and he won the 1955 French Open. Along with his influence on Venturi, Nelson helped many young players with their games, including Tom Watson. Nelson also worked for several years as a television commentator for ABC Sports.