- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

The week after winning the 1945 PGA Championship, Byron Nelson withdrew unexpectedly from the St. Paul Open. Nelson was riding the hottest hot streak in golf history — nine consecutive victories and counting — but his back was hurting, and his stomach didn’t feel too good, either. So he took a detour to Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic.

Your problems are all stress-related, the doctors told him. The competition, the travel, the sheer grind of being a golfer have begun to break you down. A year later, he would retire at 34, his health a higher priority than chasing fame and green jackets; but in ‘45 he simply moved on to the next tour stop, the Tam O’Shanter Open in Chicago … and won again, this time shooting 19 under to beat runner-up Ben Hogan by 11 strokes. The week after that, he made it 11 straight in the Canadian Open. And the week after that, he won a 36-hole, non-Tour event in New Jersey featuring, among others, Sam Snead.

Only then did Nelson’s amazing streak come to an end. At Memphis in mid-August, the best he could do was a tie for fourth behind Fred Haas Jr., a 30-year-old amateur. But get this: In the next tournament, the Knoxville Open, Byron dusted the field by 10 shots.

I didn’t know any of this when I heard of Nelson’s death Tuesday at 94. I knew about his 11 consecutive victories, of course — most golf fans do — but I didn’t know any of the details. I didn’t know, for instance, that in December of that year, the year he would win 18 Tour events and finish second in seven others, he was “splattered with 10 dozen fresh eggs when his automobile overturned three times near Denton [Texas].”

(Or so the newspapers reported. Given the embellishment sportswriters were prone to back then, you can’t be too sure about the “10 dozen” — or the “three times.”)

The records Nelson set in ‘45 have always had asterisks next to them — in people’s minds, at least — because they came during a war year. Would Lord Byron have won 11 straight and 18 total if so many of our top golfers hadn’t been otherwise occupied? (Nelson was classified 4-F by his draft board because of a blood disorder.)

It’s a legitimate question, and I figured I owed it to Byron, as a kind of final tribute, to answer it. So I availed myself of the Chicago Tribune’s online archives, tracked him tournament by tournament and came to the following conclusion: Despite all the caveats — and with or without the 10 dozen eggs — Nelson’s year might very well be the greatest a golfer has ever had.

For one thing, he wasn’t just teeing it up against a bunch of has-beens and second-raters. Yes, Hogan, Jimmy Demaret, Dutch Harrison, Jim Ferrier and others were just getting out of the service — heck, some of them played while on furlough — but Slammin’ Sammy was almost always in the field. Also putting in appearances were Ed Furgol, Vic Ghezzi, Bob Hamilton, Claude Harmon, Johnny Revolta, Denny Shute and Craig Wood — all of whom won majors.

One of Nelson’s tougher foes was his frequent fourball partner, Harold “Jug” McSpaden, who finished second to him no fewer than six times in ‘45. Another of the better players was Sam Byrd, a winner over Byron in the Texas Open — and also in a 72-hole exhibition held, interestingly, between the seventh and eighth victories of Nelson’s streak.

Byrd was a former major league baseball player and erstwhile teammate of Babe Ruth. In fact, the Yankees used him so often as a pinch runner for the aging Bambino that he acquired the nickname “Babe Ruth’s legs.” It was Byrd who lost 4 and 3 to Nelson in the final of the PGA, which had a match-play format in ‘45.

The highlight of the year was probably Charlotte, where Nelson and Snead found themselves tied after 72 holes at 16 under. As was the custom, they settled matters with an 18-hole playoff — an 18-hole playoff that became a 36-hole playoff when they both shot 69 in the first go-‘round. Byron finally prevailed in Playoff II, 69-73, pulling away with birdies on three of the last four holes.

What a closer the man was. Check out some of his final-round scores that year, all of them ending in victory: 66 (Greensboro), 65 (Durham), 65 (Atlanta), 63 (Philadelphia), 64 (Spokane), 66 (Seattle). And check out some of his winning margins: 8 (Greensboro), 9 (Atlanta), 10 (Montreal), 7 (Chicago Victory Open), 13 (Seattle), 8 (Fort Worth) — plus the aforementioned 10- (Knoxville) and 11-stroke (Tam O’Shanter) blowouts.

Clearly, Nelson would have won a lot of these tournaments anyway, war or no war. According to my calculations, he finished at least 310 under par for the year — an average of about 10 under every week. This is why, in his first 20 events, he finished worse than second only once (T-6 at Jacksonville).

Lord Byron could, as they say, hit every club in the bag. A particular favorite was the wedge. He called it “my half-Nelson because I can always strangle my opposition with it.” His putter was just as deadly. He closed out his Greensboro win, the AP said, with “one of his greatest … exhibitions.” On the final day “he dropped putts of 15, 20, 12, 16, 22, 12 and 11 feet, five of them for birdies and two for eagles.”

The last tournament of Nelson’s Year To End All Years was in Fort Worth, his hometown — more specifically at Glen Garden Country Club, where he first played the game (and, to pick up a few bucks, caddied with a kid named Ben Hogan). Just as he’d won an event right after visiting the Mayo Clinic, he won this event within days of surviving the “10 dozen fresh eggs” and his car overturning “three times.”

His score of 273, 11 under par, topped Hogan by 14. Yup, he could play a little golf, Byron could. Indeed, in 1945, he might have played it as well as anyone has or will.

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