- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

IRVING, Texas — Byron Nelson, golf’s courtly “Lord Byron” whose 11 straight tournament victories in 1945 stand as one of sports’ most enduring records, died yesterday. He was 94.

His wife, Peggy Nelson, told family friend Angela Night that her husband appeared fine as she left for Bible study yesterday morning. As she left their Roanoke home, he told her, “I’m so proud of you,” something he often said about her church involvement. When she returned, she found him on the back porch facing his woodworking shop.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office said he died of natural causes.

Known for his graceful swing and gentle manner, Nelson had the greatest year in the history of professional golf in 1945 when he won 18 tournaments. He captured 31 of 54 tournaments in 1944 and ‘45. Then, at age 34, he retired after the 1946 season to spend more time on his Texas ranch.

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

That incentive pushed Nelson to become one of the best players of his era. He won the Masters in 1937 and ‘42, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and ‘45.

He also finished second once in the U.S. Open, twice in the Masters and three times in the PGA. Nelson played in British Open only twice, finishing fifth in 1937.

Nelson’s long, fluid swing is considered the model of the modern way to strike a golf ball and his kind, caring style with fans and competitors made him one of the most well-liked people in sports. “I don’t know very much,” Nelson said in a 1997 interview with the Associated Press. “I know a little bit about golf. I know how to make a stew. And I know how to be a decent man.”

Arnold Palmer called Nelson “one of the greatest players who ever lived.”

“I don’t think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year,” Palmer said. “But I suppose that is not the most admirable thing that he did, although it was certainly tremendous. He was a fantastic person whom I admired from the time I was a boy.”

Nelson’s second British Open was in 1955, when he was no longer a serious competitor, although he did win the French Open on that trip for his last professional victory. His prize money, however, was not enough to pay the hotel bill.

“I had to put up another $200,” he told the AP with a huge smile.

Nelson was born Feb. 4, 1912, on the family farm and started in golf in 1922 as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. One year, he won the caddies’ championship, defeating Hogan in a playoff.

It was the beginning of a rivalry that never really materialized. Though they were born six months apart, Nelson won all five of his major championships before he was 34 and Hogan won all nine of his after he was 34. Sam Snead, the all-time leader in PGA victories, also was born in 1912.

After graduating from high school, Nelson got a job as a file clerk in the accounting office of the Forth Worth and Denver Railroad and played golf in his spare time.

He lost his job during the Great Depression but found work in 1931 with a bankers’ magazine. The same year, he entered his first tournament, the National Amateur in Chicago, where he missed qualifying by one stroke. With jobs hard to find, he turned professional in 1932.

Nelson started out competing against Gene Sarazen and lived to see Tiger Woods, an era that went from hickory and persimmon to graphite and titanium.

He made an appearance each year at the Masters, joining Snead and Gene Sarazen in hitting the ceremonial first balls, and hosted the Byron Nelson Classic each May.

“I did not ever dream in my wildest imagination there would be as much money or that people would hit the ball so far,” Nelson said in his 1997 interview with the AP.

“I only won $182,000 in my whole life,” he said. “In 1937, I got fifth-place money at the British Open — $187 — and it cost me $3,000 to play because I had to take a one-month leave of absence from my club job to go.”

Asked in 1997 what made Woods special as a golfer, Nelson sounded as if he were describing his own swing.

“He has perfect balance,” Nelson said. “His coordination from the feet up is all synchronized. And you’ve got to feel through your sight. He does that great.”

Then, with a graceful demonstration of the part of the golf swing from the waist on the downswing to the waist on the follow through, Nelson said: “From here to here, you can’t see anything because he moves so fast.”

Beside the flowing swing, Nelson saw another similarity.

“I was taught to do the best I could possibly do,” Nelson said. “When he hits a bad shot, he doesn’t like it. He wants to do the best he can do and when he doesn’t, he doesn’t like it.”

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