When Nelson began playing the game, golf equipment was in a period of transition from hickory to steel. Originally he had used irons with hickory shafts and woods with steel shafts. His flat caddie-yard swing worked all right with the irons, but with his woods he tended to hook the ball. He was unable to figure out why until, in 1930, he acquired his first set of steel-shafted irons and immediately began to hook them too. The problem, he eventually realized, was the difference in the amount of torque, or flex, between a steel and a hickory shaft. The compensation he was making in the roll of his wrists for the flexibility of a wooden shaft was too much for the stiffer steel shafts.
Therefore, gradually, one step at a time, from 1930 on, he had been experimenting, like most players who were not yet too set in their ways. He was looking for consistency and the clue to the hookless golf swing. And finally, in the fall of 1936, he found what he sought. He quit his job at Ridgewood, left Louise in Texarkana with her family, and headed off on a four-tournament tour of the Northwest. He played well in all of them, finishing in the money in Seattle and Portland, second in Victoria, B.C., and tied for first pro money in Vancouver. "I wasn't hooking anymore," he says. "The harder I hit it, the straighter I hit it." He covered his expenses for the trip and had $2,000 left over when he got back to Texas.
"So that's how it all started," Nelson reflects. "From then on I never looked back and never tried to change anything in my swing. I don't mean to boast. I mean I was in contention from then on."
The next spring—baby-faced and 25—Nelson drew national attention for the first time, winning the 1937 Masters. The tournament was then only four years old, but already it had considerable status. Nelson shot a 66 the first day at Augusta, a score that drew attention not only because it was a course record but also because it was accomplished without his sinking a single long putt. But the feat that got a bridge over Rae's Creek named for him was his obliteration on the last day of Ralph Guldahl's four-stroke lead. Guldahl double-bogeyed the par-3 12th hole, and then, gambling to get the lost strokes back, bogeyed the par-5 13th. Nelson, playing just behind, birdied the 12th, then eagled the 13th. He had picked up six strokes in the space of two holes and had a two-stroke lead that he never relinquished.
In Nelson's opinion, 1939 was his best year. It was the year he established himself as the best golfer around by winning the U.S: Open, finishing runner-up in the PGA Championship, winning two of the most important tour events, the Western Open at Medinah and the North and South Open at Pinehurst, and setting a professional scoring record with back-to-back 65s at the Phoenix Open. In light of subsequent events, it is difficult to make an airtight case for 1939 being Nelson's best year, but certainly it was vintage.
The 1939 Open, which is more often remembered as the Open Sam Snead lost than the Open Nelson won, was held on the Spring Mill course of the Philadelphia Country Club. Snead approached the last two holes needing only pars to win by two strokes. Nelson, Craig Wood and Denny Shute were tied at 284 for what appeared to be second place. Snead looked a little shaky when he bogeyed the 71st hole, leaving a six-foot putt short, but no one was concerned because the last hole was a relatively easy par-5 and all Snead needed was a par to win. Even if he bogeyed, he wouldn't lose. There would still be an 18-hole playoff. However, Snead got himself into a bunker that he couldn't get out of and took a triple-bogey 8.
So the playoff was three-way—Nelson, Shute and Wood. After 18 holes, Wood and Nelson remained tied with 68s, while Shute shot 76 and was eliminated. As the second 18-hole playoff between Nelson and Wood got under way, it became clear that Nelson, who already had rounds of 72, 73, 71, 68, 68 behind him, was now really getting hot. At the 3rd hole he hit a perfect pitch next to the pin for a birdie, and at the 4th he ripped off a low 210-yard one-iron with a bit of a hook on it that buzzed toward the flag, bounced and rolled a short distance past, then drew back and nestled down between the pin and the back of the cup for an eagle. After that, all Nelson had to do was hang on, and he did, finishing with a 70 and winning the playoff by three strokes. Afterward, Wood, a gracious man who had tied for first in three major championships and lost the playoff each time, said of Nelson, "He's one of the greatest golfers I've ever seen, and not because he beat me."
What astounded Wood, and everyone else, too, when they got around to totting things up, was that Nelson had hit the pin six times during the tournament, each time with a different club—in order, a four-iron, a niblick, a wedge, a driver, a six-iron and a one-iron. Nelson was not yet Lord Byron, the Mechanical Man, but he was well on his way. His long-iron play was already becoming legend, especially his mastery of the one-iron, the most difficult club in golf. "Mark my words," said Wood, "Byron is going to come through in a big way. Certainly the stage is set."
Nelson came through, but it took a while. What the stage was really set for was World War II. After 1939 the British Open and the Ryder Cup matches were discontinued. In the eight major championships that were played between 1940 and 1942, Nelson had the best record of any golfer. He won the 1940 PGA and the 1942 Masters, finished second in the 1941 Masters and was runner-up in the 1941 PGA.
In that period Nelson shared the spotlight with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Hogan had yet to win a major tournament (in fact, he won no tournament of any kind until the spring of 1940, when he suddenly ignited and took three in a row), but he had the best scoring average and he won the most money in both 1940 and 1941. Snead, who had first emerged as a contender in 1937, was second only to Hogan in earnings for 1941.