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THE REAL Cut Streak
Sal Johnson
May 12, 2003
Forget what the PGA Tour says. The record held by Byron Nelson should belong to Ben Hogan
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May 12, 2003

The Real Cut Streak

Forget what the PGA Tour says. The record held by Byron Nelson should belong to Ben Hogan

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Tiger Woods made a three-footer for bogey on the 36th hole of this year's Masters to avoid missing the cut, and immediately the nation's news media breathlessly reported that he had extended his streak for consecutive cuts made to 102, inching closer to Byron Nelson's DiMaggio-esque record of 113. One problem: An investigation by SI has revealed that Ben Hogan should hold the record, at 177. A case can also be made that the record, as currently defined, is bogus, and that Jack Nicklaus is the leader in the clubhouse for consecutive cuts made, with 101. (More on that later.)

The trouble begins at the most basic level: how to define a made cut. What the Tour calls consecutive cuts is, according to the PGA Tour's director of information, Dave Lancer, "really consecutive tournaments in the money." During Nelson's and Hogan's heyday, in the 1940s and '50s, some tournaments had 36-hole cuts—about half the field was sent home for failing to shoot a low-enough score—but the rest had no cut at all. Among these, every player teed it up for four rounds, but only a certain number (typically the low 15 or 25) were paid. According to Lancer, Nelson's streak of earning a paycheck began at the 1941 Crosby Clambake and ended at the 1946 World Championship of Golf, but details are sketchy as to how many of those 113 tournaments had a true cut. Although it can trace its roots to the early 1930s, the PGA Tour split from the PGA of America in 1968, and many documents were lost in the transition. "The records we have now were inherited from the PGA," says Lancer. "There's no question there are some missing pieces. Unfortunately, our sport is not like baseball." (Of course, baseball once had its own problems, which it addressed by hiring the Elias Sports Bureau in the 1920s to research and oversee its statistics.) Having examined all of the available records, SI estimates that only 30% of Nelson's 113 straight tournaments had a 36-hole cut. The 91-year-old Nelson, reached at home last week, said, "I can't even guess how many had a real cut. The thing of it is, I didn't keep track because I didn't really have to worry about it."

The 1959 PGA media guide, the first in which scoring and miscellaneous records were printed, listed Nelson's streak under the category, "most consecutive tournaments in the money?' The wording was inexplicably changed in the '79 PGA Tour media guide to "most consecutive events without missing cut," and that is how it appears today. But using the original criterion—consecutive tournaments in the money—SI has uncovered a streak that dwarfs Nelson's: From the 1939 PGA Championship through the '50 L.A. Open, there is no evidence that Hogan ever missed a paycheck, a staggering run of 177 tournaments. When this was brought to Lancer's attention, he said, "But how do you know you haven't missed one?" As Lancer explains it, Hogan could have shown up at a tournament somewhere, shot four 78s and failed to make a cent, but if that tournament recorded only money-earners and not the entire field, as occasionally happened, this phantom "missed cut" would have ended his streak, and we would be none the wiser.

What makes this argument specious is that the same scenario could have occurred with Nelson, yet the Tour continues to recognize his tally as the gold standard. According to Lancer, Nelson's streak was originally adopted after considerable lobbying by Bill Inglish, a longtime sportswriter for the Daily Oklahoman. Inglish was a stats fanatic who forged a close relationship with Nelson and kept records throughout Lord Byron's career. (Inglish was also the official statistician of the Masters for more than 30 years, until his death in 1998.) Ten years ago the Tour brought in statistician Pat Leahy to audit its record books. Leahy largely relied on the Tour's own bookkeeping and a handful of secondary sources, the same resources available to SI. Unfortunately, Leahy died several years ago, so there's no way of knowing if he was aware that Hogan might be the record holder. Pressed on the matter, Lancer says, "You're talking about adopting a new record, and Pat was confirming an existing record. It's not the same thing. There's no way to be 100 percent certain that there is not a tournament missing during the Hogan years." Since the same holds true for Nelson, the Tour would be wise to acknowledge that either streak, or both, comes with an asterisk, Roger Maris be damned.

It should be noted that neither Hogan's nor Nelson's tally includes a British Open, an event that has a complicated place in the Tour's accounting system. Golf's oldest championship was not considered an official PGA Tour event until 1995. Last year the Tour retroactively made all Open victories before '95 official, but starts and cuts made—the key qualifying criteria for the Tour's pension plan—are not counted. So Nicklaus's official tally of 73 career wins includes his three British Open victories, but his streak of 105 cuts (from the 1970 Sahara Invitational to the '76 Hall of Fame Tournament) does not include six British Open appearances, an indefensible inconsistency. After crunching all of this information, SI believes that the Tour's record for "consecutive events without missing cut" (what we know to be consecutive cuts in the money) should be drastically overhauled. The new leader board: Hogan 177, Nelson 113, Nicklaus 111, Woods 102.

But even these revised numbers don't seem quite right since they include tournaments without a 36-hole cut. Perhaps the Tour should have two records, defined by more precise language: consecutive cuts in the money and what we would call "most consecutive cuts made at tournaments with a 36-hole cut." A logical line of demarcation would be 1957, the year the Masters instituted a 36-hole cut, which spurred virtually every other tournament to follow suit. In this new category Nicklaus and Woods are the only serious contenders. To come up with their true figures, it is necessary to toss out events that don't have a 36-hole cut. During Nicklaus's streak of 111, he played in 10 such events. Woods annually plays in five; of the 102 tournaments in his streak 21 have come without a 36-hole cut. Leader board: Nicklaus 101, Woods 81.

The big loser in all of this, unfortunately, is Nelson, the quintessential golfing gentleman who has enjoyed the consecutive-cut record for nearly a half century. All the years have given his streak of 113 added weight, which may be why the Tour is reluctant to rewrite history. "It's the number we will stick with," Lancer says, "unless we have proof the record is wrong." Clearly that depends on how you define proof. Hogan or Nicklaus, or both, could be said to own the record that now belongs to Nelson. Lord Byron took the news in stride last week. "Well, this certainly surprises me," he said. "I will be interested to see what the Tour does with this information."