Just when it looked as if the cynics were right, that the PGA Championship was one golf tournament in which Byron Nelson often played no better than Ozzie Nelson, the lanky Texan rallied from three holes down in his final match against Sam Byrd to win 4 and 3. It was, not incidentally, Nelson's ninth victory in a row and surely his most satisfying, for it puts to rest the doubts many people had about his ability to win another big one.
It might seem strange to disparage a man who had already won one PGA and who has two Masters and a U.S. Open to go with it. But his last win in a major was three years ago, and the fact is that By, as many of his friends call him, had let three PGAs slip through his fingers at the last moment.
The worst of these fumbles came against Vic Ghezzi four years ago, just before the war began. Nelson had beaten Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen, and he was 3 up on Ghezzi on the back nine. But he got careless, then blew a three-footer on the final hole that would have given him the title.
On the second extra hole, with both balls nearly side by side no more than two feet from the cup, Byron putted first, but as he addressed the ball, his toe nudged Ghezzi's ball, which meant an automatic loss of hole and, in this case, the match. However, Ghezzi, good sport, would have none of it. He allowed Nelson to proceed without penalty, but Byron was so rattled he missed, and Ghezzi tapped in to win.
This year's event was held at the Moraine Country Club in Dayton, Ohio, and marked the first time a golf course was roped off so that spectators, and there were an estimated 30,000 of them daily, could not walk down the fairways alongside the players.
Nelson was worried about the persistent ache in his back, undoubtedly brought on by the pressure of his winning streak and for which he has been receiving nightly osteopathic treatment. He could have skipped the qualifying rounds, since as a former champion he was automatically exempt. But there was a $250 prize to the low qualifier, and Nelson said he wanted that money to buy another acre or two for the ranch he hopes to own one day. With two holes remaining, Nelson was two strokes behind Johnny Revolta, but he eagled the 35th to tie and split the purse.
Nelson beat Sarazen in the first round, then barely made it past the second. With four holes to play he was 2 down to Mike Turnesa, and when Turnesa stuck his tee shot on the par-3 15th about 10 feet from the flagstick, Nelson was in deep trouble. "If I'm ever going to get out of this match, I've got to get my ball closer," Nelson says he was thinking. And he did. Turnesa missed his putt, and Nelson sank his. He then played the last three holes in birdie, eagle, par to win the match one up. "I was seven under par and still lost," said Turnesa. "How do you beat this guy?"
Neither Denny Shute nor Claude Harmon gave Nelson much of a match over the next two days, so he reached the final against Byrd, who, you may know, is the former New York Yankee who sportswriters called Babe Ruth's Legs because he often replaced the Babe in late innings. He appeared in one World Series game, the day after the famous incident in which Ruth pointed to centerfield and proceeded to hit a home run.
Byrd was a big hitter on the golf course, and all day he outdrove Nelson. The morning 18 was nip and tuck until Byrd birdied the last four holes, chipping in from 10 yards off the green at 18. And when Byrd sank a four-footer on the 21st hole, Nelson was 2 down.
From this point on, however, Babe Ruth should have replaced Sam Byrd. Whether it was nerves or fatigue is hard to say, but over eight holes Byrd went from 2 up to 4 down, losing four holes when he bogeyed and two more when Nelson made birdies. So much for the PGA hex.