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NISSAN OPEN At RIVIERA

Riviera Made It a Full Nelson : Winning the L.A. Open Was the Final Goal for 'Lord Byron,' and He Accomplished It in 1946

February 25, 1996|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifty years ago, Byron Nelson came to the Los Angeles Open with an obsession. He wanted to win at Riviera, in the worst way.

Fresh from a Ripley's Believe It or Not streak of 11 consecutive victories the previous year, the quiet man from Fort Worth was the hottest thing in golf. He had already won the Masters twice, the PGA twice and the U.S. Open.

"When I started out, I set goals for myself, and my main goal was to win every important tournament in the United States," he recalled Saturday during a golden anniversary visit to the Riviera Country Club.

"The L.A. Open, that's what they called it then, was always the first one of the year, and the boys all thought it was one of the most important, but I'd been out here 11 times without winning.

"In 1945 I had finished second by a shot to Sam Snead. Over the winter I'd thought a lot about Los Angeles, about what it would take to win the only tournament that I hadn't won.

"I knew I had to putt better. I had never putted Riviera's greens very well. I decided I had to hit my approach shots so close that I didn't have to worry about my putting. That's what I did."

After shooting a 71 and spotting Snead a three-shot lead in the first round, Nelson came back with a 69 the second day when he hit 17 greens in regulation. He finished 72-72 for a 284 total, winning by five strokes over Ben Hogan.

"Winning here was the fulfillment of my goal," Nelson said. "I was very fortunate to win all the major tournaments during my time. I was playing pretty well then."

Nelson, now 84 and walking with a cane, said the main differences in the game of golf in 50 years is the money involved and the condition of the courses and the equipment.

"When I started out, we used the small ball and then along came a larger ball," he said. "Today, they have so many different aerodynamic dimple designs that there are balls that go high, stay low, spin, or don't spin. Anything you want.

"We were just happy to have a ball that was round."

Nelson collected $2,666.67 for winning here in 1946. He was the leading money winner in 1945 when he won 18 tournaments, earning $63,335.

Today's Nissan Open winner will receive $216,000.

"I'm a little prejudiced--no, skip that little--I am a lot prejudiced," Nelson said, "but I think the boys I played against--Snead, Hogan, Jimmy Demaret, Craig Wood, Lloyd Mangrum, Horton Smith, Jug McSpaden, Ralph Guldahl--they were all fine players. As fine as players any time.

"The difference today is the depth of the field. It is so much deeper. We had fine players at the top, but not near as many as today. Back then, we all had to have another job to make a living. You couldn't make it on the tour, but today a boy can earn a million dollars without winning a tournament.

"Our fields were short, but there were a lot of tough players to beat to win. I don't think the swing has changed much, except maybe today's players have more extension with their arms. The basic swing is just about the same, though.

"Of course, the balls go farther, the way they're manufactured, and the clubs are better, but a big difference is in putting. They putt much better today because the greens are so well taken care of. In my day, you couldn't pick up the ball on the green and clean it. You had to putt it, dirty or not.

"And I can't believe the way they take care of the bunkers, raking them so carefully after every shot. We didn't even have rakes. Sometimes, we'd kick the sand back with our shoe, but usually we'd just leave it."

Despite bumpy greens, untended traps and not-always-round balls, Nelson's smooth-as-silk swing helped him average 68.33 strokes per round in 1945, which is still the lowest in PGA history.

Looking back on the past 50 years, Nelson tabbed Jack Nicklaus as the best player he has seen.

"Arnold Palmer has done so much for the game, as a player and an ambassador, that it's hard not to say he's the best, but Nicklaus has those 18-20 major championships that you can't overlook."

"When you're talking about great champions, you can't overlook Tom Watson, either. It's hard to say who was the best. All of them had their day."

Nelson retired from competitive play the year after he won the L.A. Open, although he played occasionally after that, winning the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in 1951.

"I just got tired," he said. "I was tired of all the travel. And after I won at Riviera, I had run out of goals. It was time to quit."

He still plays 18 holes now and then.

"The cart saved me. With my hip problem, I couldn't play if I couldn't ride, but I can play 18 holes. I still love to play, I love the game, but mostly I piddle around and shoot bad."

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