A true legend

One of the game's pioneers, Byron Nelson will be remembered for his remarkable streak and his gentlemanly demeanor.n Lord Byron squired in the modern golf swing that became the model for generations of golfers to come.

Published September 27, 2006

Known for his elegant swing and gentle manner, Byron Nelson never set out to have the greatest record in golf. He just wanted to make enough money so he could afford a ranch in Texas.

So the year after Mr. Nelson won a record 18 tournaments - including a mind-boggling 11 in a row - he retired from golf in 1945 at 34 and bought his dream ranch in Roanoke, Texas. It was there that Mr. Nelson, one of golf's most beloved characters, died Tuesday at 94.

"The only thing that rivals Byron's greatness on a golf course is the manner in which he conducted his life - as a gentleman, a role model and an ambassador," Jack Nicklaus, one of only five golfers who have exceeded Mr. Nelson's 52 career victories, said in a statement.

Mr. Nelson's career spanned just 11 years, and he never fully committed to it because there wasn't enough money in golf. Still, only Sam Snead (82 victories), Nicklaus (73), Ben Hogan (64), Arnold Palmer (62) and Tiger Woods (53) have won more tournaments.

"My driving focus was to make enough money that I could pay cash for this ranch," said Mr. Nelson, who paid $55,000 for his home in 1946.

Mr. Nelson - Lord Byron to many - won five major championships, the Masters in 1937 and 1942, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945.

But it was how he won, not how often he won, that set him apart.

"As a competitor, Byron was able to be mean and tough and intimidating - and pleasant," said Ken Venturi, the 1964 U.S. Open winner and one of Nelson's closest friends. "You can always argue who was the greatest player, but Byron is the finest gentleman the game has ever known."

Tiger Woods has a current streak of five victories in a row that he will carry into this week's American Express Championship in England. But he has no illusion he'll be able to match Mr. Nelson's record.

"In this day and age, to win 11 in a row would almost be unheard of," Woods said. "What Byron accomplished ... that goes down as probably one of the greatest years in the history of our sport. You've got to have one bad week somewhere. He never did. His bad week was a win."

Many credit Mr. Nelson for ushering in the modern swing in an era where hickory clubs were being replaced by the steel shaft. He learned that by using the larger muscles in his legs and hips, he was able to build a more reliable motion through the ball.

Mr. Nelson's swing was so repeatable, it was often compared to a machine. In 1966 True Temper created a robot that replicated Nelson's famous swing and was used to create True Temper golf equipment. It was dubbed "Iron Byron." The U.S. Golf Association would later use Iron Byron for equipment and ball testing.


"I don't think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year. 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."

- ARNOLD PALMER, golf legend

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"Apart from being one of the greatest players ever, Byron Nelson was always the epitome of a gentleman. His passing marks the end of arguably golf's most prolific era, which included the likes of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. To my mind, Byron was possibly golf's most consistent player ever." - BEN CRENSHAW, two-time Masters champion

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"Byron Nelson symbolized golf with a grace that embodied the game. The PGA of America and the game of golf have lost one of our teaching and playing giants, as well as one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever known."

- ROGER WARREN, president of the PGA of America

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"He was a legend who transcended generations and was loved and respected by everyone who knew him. Our players, young and old, looked to Byron as the consummate role model of our sport. His legacy spans across his historic performances, the gentle and dignified way he carried himself and his tremendous contributions to golf and society."

- TIM FINCHEM, PGA commissioner

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"He was the best of men, and a gentleman to all."

- MICHAEL BURGESS, U.S. Representative whose district includes Nelson's Roanoke, Texas, home