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GOOD LORD OF GOLF
Sarah Pileggi
May 07, 1979
In those days he was Lord Byron and set records still unequaled. Then, at 34, Byron Nelson quit the game to fulfill an old dream
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May 07, 1979

Good Lord Of Golf

In those days he was Lord Byron and set records still unequaled. Then, at 34, Byron Nelson quit the game to fulfill an old dream

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Nelson's scoring average for 84 rounds in 1944 was 69.67, and he won $37,000 in War Bonds, nearly twice as much as Sam Snead's record total in 1938. The Associated Press named Nelson Athlete of the Year, and TIME reported, "The quality of competition in other sports had fallen off, but in golf the steady competition of par was the same as ever. Against that unwavering opponent, John Byron Nelson had proved himself not only the athlete of the year, but one of the greatest golfers ever."

Who could have imagined that 1944 was only a warmup?

Every great athlete has, at the prime of his sporting life, a season or a year that stands out from the rest. It usually arrives in the midst of a series of good years, and a certain amount of time has to pass before its true size can be recognized. Babe Ruth's year was 1927. Bobby Jones' was 1930. Don Budge's was 1938. Ben Hogan's was 1953.

Byron Nelson's year was 1945. He came as close that year as a golfer can to being unbeatable. He set records in 1945 that are still on the books 34 years later and will undoubtedly be there 34 years from now. He played golf that other golfers found almost unbelievable. In that year Corcoran was able to line up 35 tournaments worth about half a million dollars. Nelson won 18, just over half of them.

Eighteen tournaments was 11 more than anyone had won in a calendar year. Eighteen tournaments in a year is five more than any golfer has won since. Furthermore, Nelson finished second seven times in 1945. His prize money, most of it in War Bonds, was $52,000, half again as much as his own record the previous year. (That $52,000 was 10% of the total purse for 1945. Ten percent of this year's total purse on the PGA tour would be $1.3 million.)

It has often been argued that Nelson's record year could have occurred only at a time when the best of the competition was still away at war, but that overlooks Nelson's scoring, which was barely credible. In 120 rounds of tournament golf, Nelson's average score for 18 holes was 68.33. It is a record that has never been touched. Snead, with 69.23 in 1950, came closest. Hogan's 69.30 in 1948 is next. Jack Nicklaus' best stroke average was 69.81 in 1973, and that was for only 72 rounds.

During that year, Nelson was also working on another remarkable string. Between 1940 and 1946, he finished in the money in 113 straight tournaments. Jack Nicklaus came closest to that record with 105 between 1970 and 1976. Also, it should be noted, in Nelson's day most tournaments paid only the top 15 places; during Nicklaus' string, 70 places were paid.

But the record for which Nelson will probably be remembered longer than any other is the Streak. Between mid-March and early August, he won 11 tournaments in a row, a feat that is almost beyond comparison. The closest any golfer has come to the record in 34 years was when Nancy Lopez won five in a row in 1978.

Extraordinary feats in golf, rounds such as Johnny Miller's 63 in the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, and Al Geiberger's 59 in the second round of the Memphis Classic in 1977, are so unusual and so far beyond reasonable explanation that they are frequently said to have happened while the golfers were in a "trance" or a "fog," the implication being that the score was more the product of magic than an act of will. Nelson's 1945 "trance" lasted five months and survived some heavy handicaps. Travel, for instance. Travel during World War II, no matter what the vehicle, was like a rush hour that lasted four years. Further, most of Nelson's travel was by train, which, even when things went according to schedule, required days instead of hours to get from one place to another. Nelson also won tournaments while playing benefits at a rate of at least one, more often two, a week wherever he went. He almost never was able to play a practice round.

The Streak began with a victory in the Miami Four-Ball tournament the second week of March. The next week, when he beat Snead in a playoff at Charlotte, N.C., Nelson sensed something unusual was going on. "I became confident," he remembers. "I realized I could do with the golf ball pretty much what I wanted to do."

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