In Golf there is a constant search to identify the "dominant" player. But no one truly dominates in golf. It's the sport in which the so-called best player actually wins less frequently than in any other. At the highest levels golf is a game of losing.
Certainly Bobby Jones in 1930, when he won the Grand Slam, and Ben Hogan in 1953, when he won all three of the major championships he entered, dominated the golf scene, but Jones played only five events and Hogan only seven in those years. Greats like Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson and Price have all been called dominant, but none has ever won even half the events he entered in a given year.
Hard-core, week-in and week-out domination over an entire season has happened only once in men's golf. Byron Nelson did it in 1945 when he won 18 official tournaments and, remarkably, 11 straight.
On the 50th anniversary of those feats—commemorated last week at the tournament named for the 83-year-old Nelson—it is fair to call them the most break-resistant records ever attained in a major individual sport. Even extending the criteria to include team sports, the only milestones as unassailable are those set by a pair of old-time major league pitchers: Jack Chesbro's 41 victories for the New York Yankees in 1904 and Cy Young's career total of 511.
The magnitude of Nelson's feat is so great that, with his 52 official victories, including five major championships, over a playing career that lasted only 11 full seasons, it justifies rating him as the greatest golfer of all time.
It all depends on the criteria used. For overall record, Jack Nicklaus is a clear choice. For rising to the occasion, Jones. For sheer control of a golf ball, Hogan. For enduring as a competitive force for the longest period, Sam Snead. But no one achieved the absolute pinnacle of the game and stayed there the way Nelson did in 1945. His best was the best ever.
Check the numbers. Nelson's 68.33 scoring average over the 120 rounds he played in '45, his 67.68 final-round scoring average, his consecutive rounds under 70 (19) have never been matched. Also in 1945, Nelson added to a streak that would ultimately see him play 86 straight events over nine years in which he finished out of the top 10 only once (a tie for 13th in Pensacola in his final year of regular competition, 1946).
Nelson naysayers will dispute statistical analysis, positing that PGA tour competition was still thin because of World War II, and that the mostly dried-out courses, while often ragged, were easier to score low on than today's layouts. They will have a point, but one that is weakened by the fact that Nelson often went head-to-head with Hogan and Snead in 1945, and he was playing with clubs and balls that wouldn't stand up to today's standards for consistency and distance. On top of that, consider that in the 16 stroke-play events Nelson won, his average winning margin was an astounding 6.25 strokes.
Nelson's accomplishments aren't just about numbers but rather about winning in the game of losing. Nelson won like no golfer before him ever had and no one has since (the nearest was Hogan, who, perhaps spurred on by his perennial rival, won 13 times in 1946). In fact, Nelson's 18th victory, the Fort Worth Open, was fittingly played at Glen Garden Country Club, where he and Hogan both began as caddies.
For all the pure shot makers, charismatic figures and steely competitors the game has seen, golf's final measure—and ultimate challenge—is simply to win. Ask Greg Norman, or any other top player of today who has struggled to get his career victory total into double figures. Victory takes something special. Or ask Nelson, who understood the dynamic perhaps better than any golfer who ever lived.