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Perfect swing finishes its arc

Byron Nelson, game's true gentleman who authored golf's greatest season in 1945, dies at 94.

By BOB HARIG
Published September 27, 2006


Golf legend Byron Nelson, who had the sport's greatest professional season in 1945 and what many believed to be one of its greatest swings, died Tuesday (Sept. 26, 2006) at his Texas home. He was 94. He died of natural causes, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office said.

Mr. Nelson, known as much for his grace and humility as his Hall of Fame career, won 18 tournaments in 1945, including 11 in a row, a record that still dwarfs the next-best streak of six by Ben Hogan in 1948 and Tiger Woods in 1999-2000.

But the streak Mr. Nelson always held in the highest regard was the 113 consecutive cuts he made during the 1940s, a feat unmatched until Woods surpassed him in 2003 on his way to 142 straight.

"I actually made money in 113 straight tournaments," Mr. Nelson said during a 1995 interview. "There's a difference. In those days, sometimes they paid only to 15 or 20 places. You could make a cut and not make any money. That's a lot better than making a cut."

In 1945, Mr. Nelson won 18 of the 30 tournaments he entered and finished second on seven occasions and out of the top five once. He never finished out of the top 10 and was first, second or third in 26. His stroke average for the year was 68.33, with a final-day average of 67.45.

The 11 straight victories that year stretched from March to early August, beginning with the Miami Four-Ball. Along the way, he won the PGA Championship, one of his five major titles. The streak ended when Nelson finished third to amateur Fred Haas Jr. at the Memphis Invitational.

The following year, Mr. Nelson left the life of a touring golfer at age 34 because he had done what he wanted and made enough money to buy the Roanoke ranch where he lived the rest of his life on about 700 acres, 15 miles outside Dallas.

"My driving focus was to make enough money that I could pay cash for this ranch," he said. "The closer I got, the more I was able to concentrate and play well. It was like I was in a trance."

Mr. Nelson's other major titles came at the 1937 and 1942 Masters, the 1939 U.S. Open and the 1940 PGA.

Two years ago, when a Nelson exhibit was unveiled at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Mr. Nelson revealed that the key to his success in 1945 was a New Year's resolution he had made to improve the only areas of his game he felt were lacking: his chipping and an occasional careless shot.

"It shows you how important one stroke really is in golf," Mr. Nelson said. "One shot doesn't sound like much, but I won eight times in 1944, improved one-third of a shot in '45 and won 18 times."

Mr. Nelson went on to be a golf analyst in the early days of network broadcasts in the 1960s and served as a mentor to many players, including Tom Watson.

"Byron is an icon of golf," said Watson, who won eight major titles. "But more important, he was a good man, in the true sense of the word."

For all of his success in golf - his 52 victories on the PGA Tour rank sixth all time behind Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Woods - he often said his biggest accomplishment was his work with the Dallas Salesmanship Club, a legacy he declared "means more to me than anything I've done in golf."

The group runs the Byron Nelson Championship and traditionally raises more money for charity than any other PGA Tour event. The proceeds go to troubled youths in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, and the tournament has carried Mr. Nelson's name since 1968. He and Palmer are the only former touring pros with their name attached to a tournament. The Nelson has raised more than $85-million.

Mr. Nelson got his start as a caddie at Glen Gardens in Fort Worth, where he met another caddie born the same year (1912) and would become a rival, Hogan. (Snead also was born in 1912.)

"I loved golf from the first time I ever stepped on the golf course," Mr. Nelson said. "I loved the swinging of the club, the nice people who were around."

On display at the World Golf Hall of Fame is the first model of the Iron Byron machine that the United States Golf Association used to test balls and clubs. The device hits balls and was built using films of various golfers, but mostly Mr. Nelson, who was considered to have a perfect swing. Mr. Nelson consulted and gave advice on the machine's operation.

Mr. Nelson is considered the father of the modern swing and was one of the first players to make the transition from hickory shafts to steel.

"You can always argue who was the greatest player in golf," CBS analyst Ken Venturi once said. "But Byron Nelson is the finest gentleman this game has ever known."