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Byron Nelson, 94; Set Pro Golf Record of 11 Consecutive Tournament Wins

September 27, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

Byron Nelson, whose record of winning 11 consecutive professional golf events in 1945 remains one of sport's most unassailable records, died Tuesday at his home in Roanoke, Texas. He was 94. The Tarrant County medical examiner's office announced Nelson's death, according to the Associated Press, and said he died of natural causes.

Reaction poured in from his admirers in the world of golf

Arnold Palmer, a legend of the game in his own right, called Nelson "a fantastic person" and said he had admired him "from the time I was a boy."

"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.

Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion, said Nelson was "possibly golf's most consistent player ever."

"His passing marks the end of arguably golf's most prolific era," Crenshaw said.

Born on his parents' cotton farm near Waxahachie, Texas, Nelson worked his way off the farm and out of the caddie shack to become a superstar in a golden generation of golfers that had more than its share, including Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen. Known as Lord Byron, Nelson won 52 tournaments in all -- more than any other player except for Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan and Palmer -- and five major championships.

Nelson's pinnacle was the 1945 season, in which he won 18 of the 30 official tournaments he played, including a record 11 in succession, an almost unimaginable feat that spanned 4 1/2 months.

It remains the best year for any golfer in history.

Over the course of 118 competitive rounds of stroke-play events in 1945, Nelson's scoring average was 68.33 and he was 320 strokes under par.

Nelson also finished second seven times that year, and his worst finish was a tie for ninth.

Hogan and Tiger Woods came closest to Nelson's total, each with six consecutive victories. Hogan's streak was in 1948 and Woods' was in 2000.

"Scoring and playing are two different games," Nelson said in 1985. "And if I was playing well, I'd just go play. I remember Bobby Jones saying when he was playing well, he was only thinking about one thing. But if he had to think about two things, he would play mediocre and if he thought about three things, he would be terrible."

Nelson never tired of speaking about his streak, which was often compared, at least in terms of difficulty, to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak with the New York Yankees.

"The way people talk about the streak, you'd think I only played one year," Nelson once said.

Nelson turned pro in 1932, but there was no professional tour to speak of. Not until 1944, after years of working as a club professional, did he devote himself full time to the still-developing tour.

Nelson won six more times in 1946, but found the burden of playing the circuit too much. He experienced extreme stomach problems which he linked to the pressure, and yearned for a quiet life back in Texas. He walked away from the professional tour at age 34.

"I asked him once, 'Why did you quit?' " Snead once said. "And he told me, 'I got so sick when the streak was over. I don't know. It did something to me. I didn't care for it anymore.' "

John Byron Nelson Jr. was born Feb. 4, 1912 -- the same year as Snead and Hogan.

As a teenager, Nelson learned that he could make extra money as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, where he met another young caddie for the first time -- Hogan. They would become both contemporaries and rivals.

In 1926 when Nelson was 14, there was a nine-hole caddie championship played at Glen Garden, and he sank a long putt on the last hole to tie for the title.

"I tied with a small boy named Ben Hogan," Nelson wrote. "The members decided to play nine more holes. I was fortunate and won by one shot. I had met Ben before, of course, but I hadn't really gotten to know him. He was quiet, serious and mostly kept to himself."

Nelson soon learned that he had a gift for golf, a game that seemed to come easily to him. His swing was smooth and naturally repetitive. In his massive hands, the grips on the shafts of his clubs would nearly disappear. Nelson said that was part of the reason for his success.

"I have big hands, but with a lot of feel," he once said. "The Lord gave me good coordination, a great rhythm and wonderful balance. I had an absolutely uncanny judgment of distance. And even though folks couldn't always see it, I had a very big desire to achieve. I got pretty steamed up inside."

A down-to-earth work ethic and simple, homespun goodness often overshadowed Nelson's competitive nature. In truth, he succeeded in golf beyond his wildest dreams with equal parts of the divergent personalities.

He would become one of the greatest and most beloved golfers in history, although Nelson's early career offered little indication of his future stature as a sports icon.

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