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Golf, because of the verdant grandeur of its playing venues, is the game of choice in coffee-table books. No doubt about it, furniture literature fairly thrives on depictions of golfers at play amid bucolic splendor. But for the most part these are merely picture books, the sparse prose functioning mainly as caption filler.
Notable exceptions to this convention are the Brobdingnagian books of the American Golfer, a publishing company based in Greenwich, Conn. In Byron Nelson—The Story of Golf's Finest Gentleman and the Greatest Winning Streak in History ($60, copublished with Broadway Books), fine writing by American Golfer founder Martin Davis and contributors Dan Jenkins, Dave Anderson and Nick Seitz perfectly complements the classic photographs of "Lord Byron" and his poetic swing. As a further bonus, golfers Ken Venturi, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw add expert analysis to the literary mix. The result is one of the most attractive and readable coffee-table publications in recent memory.
This is the third in a series of American Golfer tributes to legendary masters of the ancient game, Nelson having been preceded on the honor roll by Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan. Although Hogan was his exact contemporary (both were born in 1912) and a fellow Texan, Nelson would seem to have much more in common with the courtly Jones than with dour Ben. "It is his inner strength," writes Davis, "his essential character, if you will, that sets Byron apart, just as it was with Bob Jones."
Like Jones's, Nelson's time on center stage was relatively brief—only 15 years, from 1932 through '46. Jones retired from active competition when he was 28, Nelson at 34, ages when most modern golfers are just beginning to perfect their game. But also like Jones, Nelson made the most of his short time.
Nelson set records that yet endure. His play in 1945, when he won 18 of the 30 tournaments he entered, including 11 in a row, and was runner-up seven times, is legend. "Never before or since has a golfer been so dominant in a calendar year," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Anderson. "It was a year that almost any golfer would be happy to consider a career." But who remembers that in 1944 Nelson won 10 of the 24 events he played and finished second in six more?
In fact, from 1944 until he retired to his Texas ranch in July 1946, Nelson won 34 of the 75 events he entered. Jenkins, a teenager at the time and like Nelson a native of Fort Worth, recalls that he was "conditioned to believe that Byron Nelson would win every golf tournament for the rest of my life.... I don't know how many fans arc still around who had the pleasure of seeing Nelson strike the golf ball.... Not too many sportswriters, I dare say. Most of the sports-writers of Byron's decade have gone on to the big hospitality tent in the sky, and, no offense, but several of those I know today tend to wear shorts, sneakers, drink diet sodas and have to go to the Internet to determine whether 1945 was the era of Napoleon or the Crusades."
Nelson was no slouch in the major championships, winning the Masters in '37 and '42, the U.S. Open in '39 and the PGA, when it was still a match-play tournament, in '40 and '45. He might well have won more if the Masters and both the British and U.S. Opens had not been canceled in his most memorable season due to the inconvenience of World War II.
The intense pressure of competition and sustaining his winning record pushed Nelson into early retirement from the Tour. After 1946 he played only a handful of tournaments over the next 20 years. His last victory came in 1955 at the French Open, when he was 43.
For all his record-shattering success, the unassuming Nelson says he prefers being remembered as "a nice man with a lot of integrity." Chances are he will be, for as his good friend and former pupil Venturi writes, "You can always argue who was the greatest player, but Byron is the finest gentleman the game has ever known."