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New World Order: Observing the great Byron Nelson on eve of his event

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Eleven straight wins in 1945 is one of many feats accomplished by the late Byron Nelson. (Getty Images)  
Eleven straight wins in 1945 is one of many feats accomplished by the late Byron Nelson. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- What you have heard, or more likely read, is true. Every word.

As far as iconic golf figures go, there was no nicer man than Byron Nelson, who used to pen notes of congratulations or condolence to players, make keepsakes for them in his woodshop, and was generally every bit the classy gentleman as we've been lead to believe.

The namesake of this week's HP Byron Nelson Championship is forever captured by a larger-than-life statue that rests on the property where the tournament is contested this week, and it's hard to believe it's already been nearly six years since his passing.

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He would have turned 100 last Feb. 4.

It's with a degree of sadness that some of associated with the game watch what has happened to his tournament over the years, as many of the elite class have scratched it off their must-play list, just as they did when Bob Hope died. It's the predictable course of events, especially for the younger set who never met the gentle man from Fort Worth, to forget about the impact of their sporting forebears as the years pass.

So consider this a refresher course on the man who used to sit behind the 18th green at the event, shaking hands with every player after he finished his round, and darned happy to make their acquaintance.

A big benefit of working at New World Order headquarters is meeting some of the game's greats over the years, and occasionally getting to know them on a more casual basis. That was not the case with Nelson, who was a largely private person, but it only took a couple of brushes with the man to understand that he was the real deal.

As a tip of the trademark fedora to the man who should not be forgotten, this week's list is a compendium of a dozen illuminating passages, both obvious and more obscure, about gentle John Byron Nelson Jr., who darned sure deserves to be remembered by the Internet generation.

By the way, in the most recent edition of Feherty on the Golf Channel, former president Bill Clinton said his dream foursome would include Nelson, because he would love to have seen, firsthand, what impossible physical gifts could have allowed somebody to win a PGA Tour record 11 straight starts in 1945. A record that will never be broken, mind you.

"If he had kept playing like guys do now, more than likely he would have won more tournaments than anyone," Tiger Woods said after Nelson passed away in 2006.

Some of the stories have been oft-told, some of them not. But as the tour troops though Dallas this week, Nelson again serves as a generational crucial touchstone not only for where the game is going, but where it's been.

1. Perhaps Golf's Greatest Season

In 1945, as the war was winding down, Nelson won 11 tournaments in succession, but that doesn't begin to tell the story. He won 18 tournaments in 30 starts and finished second seven times. Put another way, he had five finishes outside the top two. Nelson averaged 68.33 strokes, despite playing at times on greens that were as true as asphalt on a two-lane highway. Tiger Woods (67.79) finally broke the record with his defining season in 2000. The PGA Tour's award for lowest stroke average is named in Nelson's honor.

2. Cut Streaks and Lord Byron

It was a different era, to be sure. Technically, Tiger Woods (142 starts) holds the record for the longest cut streak on the PGA Tour, a run that, rather fittingly, ended at Nelson's own tournament. But Nelson was a cut above in many ways, all puns intended. In the 1940s, purses were puny and as a matter of course, perhaps the top 20-30 players actually drew any prize money on Sunday night. That said, Nelson cashed in at 113 events in a row, a staggering display of consistency, given that he was playing 30 times annually.

3. That Delicate War Issue

It has been noted, sometimes brusquely so, that Nelson's streak in 1945 came at a time when many of his competitors were serving in the military. That's undeniable. But it's also true that Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, his two biggest rivals, played plenty of golf that year and won multiple titles, too. Forget all that. His stroke average was 68.33, and his final-round scoring average was 67.45.

4. Grace and Class

Former player and broadcaster Ken Venturi has often told the story of a series of exhibitions he and Nelson gave on the West Coast. Nelson would arrive and ask two questions: "What is the course record, and who owns it?" If the local club pro held the course record, Nelson would make sure he didn't break it. "The home pro lives there," Venturi recalled Nelson explaining. "We're just guests there." Perfect.

5. Father of the Modern Swing

For decades, inside the U.S. Golf Association testing center, a collection of nuts, bolts and metal rods carried the name of Iron Byron. It was a robot, constructed to test the tolerances of new equipment, and was modeled after Nelson's swing. Not Snead. Not Hogan. That speaks volumes about the man's incredible, repeating move.

6. The Real Streak

While everybody rightfully fixates on the 1945 season, the Nelson run included portions of the seasons that preceded and followed it, too. In a span of 69 events over those three years, he won 32 times. He finished in the top therein all but 14 of them.

7. Carnival on Caravan

Players in the Nelson era did not often travel by plane, mind you, which makes Nelson's incomprehensible run in the mid-40s that much more impressive. Week after week, they piloted their cars to the next city in an age before Interstates had been built or seatbelts were in fashion. There were plenty of pitfalls, such as when Nelson and his wife, with a bunch of caged chickens in the back seat, crashed their Studebaker near Fort Worth en route to playing a practice round. The car flipped over, and miraculously, neither was seriously injured. Though his wife was covered in eggs.

8. Brothers in Arms

Jug McSpaden once joked that he might be remembered as one of the game's greatest if not for Nelson. He might have a point. Jug finished second to Nelson eight times in 1945 alone, yet he asked Byron to serve as godfather to a son. McSpaden once helped marshal the crowd around Nelson in a playoff at the 1939 U.S. Open. After Nelson retired, he generously gave McSpaden the putter he used during the streak. Byron didn't really need it. He basically retired from tour play at age 34, as soon as he had saved enough money to buy the ranch he had always dreamed of owing.

9. Golf's Version of an IOU

As was the norm in the war era, tournament purses in 1945 were paid off in bonds. For instance, when Nelson won the 1945 Phoenix Open, he received $1,333 in war bonds out of the $6,666 purse.

10. Weight of the World

After a while, the pressure of the streak began to take a toll. The nation needed sports heroes. Every city the tour visited wrote the same story and writers asked the same questions. He lost weight. His back hurt. He told his wife once, as he headed out the door to one tournament during the record winning run, that he hoped he would "blow up" that day. He shot 66. The streak in 1945 ended in Memphis, five days after Japan surrendered, when he finished T4. He won the very next week. Even after the streak came to an end, Nelson claimed four of his last 10 starts.

11. Just for Context

It's amazing how far the game has come in many regards, but the financial gains are nothing short of staggering, even adjusted for inflation. During his 1945 run, Nelson's biggest check was for $13,600 for winning the Tam O'Shanter Open, but that's misleading. For the entire season, Nelson took home $62,347.32, or less than what some elite players today make for finishing dead last in a no-cut World Golf Championships event.

12. Giving to the End

When Nelson, a deeply devout man, was found dead of natural causes in 2006, he was in his woodshop. A few months earlier, he had hand-crafted a gift for each player on the U.S. Ryder Cup team made of a sliver of stained wood. His signature stamp, made by Byron Nelson, was branded in black on one side, while the other included the player's first name and a Bible passage reading, "With your help I can advance against a troop. With my God I can scale a wall."

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