Posted: Tuesday September 26, 2006 6:40PM; Updated: Tuesday September 26, 2006 6:40PM
By Walter Bingham, Sports Illustrated
In 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Byron Nelson's epic run of 11 straight tournament wins in 1945, Sports Illustrated re-created each of the victories that made up that historic streak.
1. Miami Four-Ball
No wonder they are called the Gold Dust Twins. Byron Nelson and Harold (Jug) McSpaden, who last year finished one-two on the PGA money list, teamed up in last week's Miami Four-Ball and, not surprisingly, swept through the field like two pros who had wandered into a club championship, winning all four matches easily, especially the final. In that match, against Sam Byrd and Denny Shute, they were only 2 up through 18 holes at the lunchtime break, but Byrd and Shute should have finished their sandwiches, paid the bill and gone to a movie. The Twins won four of the first six holes in the afternoon, eventually closing out the match 8 and 6. Each winner received $1,100 worth of war bonds, the tour's customary method of payment these days.
For the 33-year-old Nelson, this was his fourth win of the 1945 season and the 39th of his career, which includes victories in two Masters, a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship. Curiously, however, Nelson arrived in Miami in an unhappy frame of mind, or ``steamed up,'' as he put it. He said he had played ``just horrible'' up in Jacksonville the week before, finishing sixth, and his irritation was undoubtedly heightened by the fact that Sam Snead won his third straight tournament and fifth of the year there. Nelson may look like a gentle man, and indeed he is, but he is also as competitive as a bulldog, and Snead's success has rankled him.
Nelson and McSpaden are close friends who have in common that both were rejected by the military -- Nelson because he is a ``free-bleeder,'' a condition akin to but not quite as serious as hemophilia, and McSpaden because of severe allergies. Nelson, who looks as if he could handle a rifle as easily as a brassie, admits to being uncomfortable about his status, and for the past two years the two golfers have crisscrossed the country playing Red Cross and U.S.O. exhibitions. Even so, Byron's wife, Louise, says that while she and Byron were driving through Arizona recently, people shook their fists at them when, with gas being rationed as it is, they saw the car's Texas license plates and an apparently healthy man, with no uniform, behind the wheel.
In the four-ball format used in Miami, 16 twosomes began a better-ball competition on Thursday at Miami Springs Country Club, 36 holes at match play. Winners moved on, losers went home. While Nelson and McSpaden were the favorites, none of the other pros complained about their being teamed, because in four previous tries in this event, they had never progressed past the second round.
Nelson and McSpaden's major competition in Miami was supposed to come from Snead, paired with Bob Hamilton, the defending PGA champion, and the team of Lieut. Ben Hogan, on leave from the Army Air Force, and Ed Dudley, president of the PGA and formerly the head pro at Augusta National. All three teams won their first matches easily, but in the next round Nelson-McSpaden beat Hogan- Dudley 4 and 3. Hogan rarely looked like the player who won the 1942 Hale America Open, his last major victory and one that many followers of the game feel was truly the U.S. Open with a different name. ``I just couldn't concentrate,'' Hogan said after his loss.
The winners moved smoothly into the finals, but the anticipated showdown with the Snead team never took place. In the best match of the week, Shute, the last man to win the PGA Championship in successive years (1936-37), and Byrd, a former major league outfielder with the New York Yankees and the Cincinnati Reds, beat Snead-Hamilton on the 38th hole. The winners had trailed for much of the match, but Shute dropped a curling 20-footer on the 34th hole to even things up. On the second extra hole, both Snead and Hamilton were inside 10 feet, but after Byrd applied the pressure by dropping his 12-footer, the favorites missed and were out of the tournament.
It probably wouldn't have mattered. Nelson-McSpaden did not make any bogeys the entire week. Of the two, Nelson had far the greater share of birdies going into the final, but on Sunday morning McSpaden went into the pro shop, changed the grip on his putter from sponge rubber to leather and proceeded to hole six birdies in the 30 holes of the match, one more than he had all week.
After exchanging a few words with the press, Nelson headed for this week's Charlotte Open in his 1939 light-green Studebaker President, a four-door sedan that he got for winning the 1939 U.S. Open. Nelson had posed for ads with a Studebaker Champion, but he needed the larger four-door for his golf luggage. Gas rationing is no problem because of his allowance for the exhibitions he plays. Nelson loves to drive. And no wonder. When he has to fly, he must buy an extra ticket for his clubs if the plane is full, because the weight limit for luggage is 40 pounds.
Snead is entered at Charlotte, too. He can argue he has still won three times in a row, not counting Miami, which after all was ``doubles.'' Nelson thinks otherwise, but prefers to let his golf game do the talking.