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Iron Standard
DICK FRIEDMAN
March 05, 2007
Is Byron Nelson's record the greatest in sports history?
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March 05, 2007

Iron Standard

Is Byron Nelson's record the greatest in sports history?

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On Sunday evening the scorecard said that Henrik Stenson was the winner of the Accenture Match Play Championship. Perhaps the real victor, though, was a gentleman who passed away in September at the age of 94. When Nick O'Hern eliminated Tiger Woods in the third round at the Gallery's South course, thus halting Woods's streak of PGA Tour wins at seven, Byron Nelson's hallowed record of 11 straight victories in 1945 acquired even more luster. Now it looks downright unassailable, and only one question remains: Is this the greatest individual sports streak of all time?

The conditions were never more ripe for an assault on Nelson. You had arguably the greatest golfer ever, in his prime, playing a custom-made schedule at a time when his main challengers hadn't been at their best. And still Woods stumbled. So if not now, when? Never, probably.

Even before Woods's doomed attempt, Nelson's mark already had its rightful place on the Mount Rushmore of individual sports streaks. Foremost, of course, is Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, attained in 1941 and long thought to be the most shatterproof. Appearing proudly alongside are such epic deeds as Orel Hershiser's 59 straight scoreless innings in 1988; hurdler Edwin Moses's 122 straight victories from 1977 to '87; NFL receiver Jerry Rice's 274 straight games with at least one reception (1985--2004); and even Woods's streak of 142 consecutive cuts made (1998--2005).

Of those, the marks of Joltin' Joe and Lord Byron have stood the longest, making them the focus of barroom arguments over which is the greatest. Supporters of the Yankee Clipper would open by declaring that hitting a baseball safely may be the most difficult act in sports. They would then note that the closest anyone in baseball's modern era has come to DiMaggio's record is 12 games ( Pete Rose's 44 in 1978). No one since has even had a 40-game hit streak. Case closed.

Or is it? Nelson's adherents would concede that there's forgiveness on the golf course: You can win despite a flub here and a dub there, but there's no hanging it up after you get your hit for the day, so to speak. In other words, DiMaggio only had to reach base safely once a day. Nelson actually had to win his event, either by beating an entire field or by prevailing at often grinding match play, as he and partner Jug McSpaden did in the '45 Miami Four Ball. In such instances, as Woods has discovered to his dismay, a Nick O'Hern is always lying in the weeds. To rebut the objection that Nelson was facing fields weakened by wartime: Sam Snead entered 27 events that year and Ben Hogan 19. Jimmy Demaret and Craig Wood played full schedules. They were not chopped liver. So the verdict--at this 19th hole, anyway--goes to Nelson.

In any case, it's beginning to look suspiciously as if Lord Byron's record, like Joltin' Joe's, may never even be equaled, much less broken. What's indisputable is that if Tiger hopes to match Nelson, he must start all over again at one.

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