The Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas, where the PGA tour stops this week, is typical of a kind of club that exists in or near every sizable American city. It is a sporting refuge of wealthy and powerful men and others who aspire to wealth and power, a place that carefully straddles the line between ostentation and invisibility. A member of such a club would not be the sort to boast of his advantages, but neither would he care for them to go altogether unnoticed.
Byron Nelson is a lifetime honorary member of Preston Trail. At 67, a prosperous rancher, a businessman, a sitter on boards of directors, he would be indistinguishable from other members of his age and station if it were not for his hands. Nelson's hands are huge—thick of palm and long of finger, powerful and weathered. With those hands Nelson won the life he now leads; because of those hands and the magic he performed with them almost four decades ago, this week's tournament is named for him. During a professional career that began in Texarkana, Texas in 1932 and came to an end in Portland, Ore. in 1946, Nelson did things that no golfer has done since. For some of those 14 years he was unquestionably the best golfer alive, and for most of them he was a superlative striker of the ball, a player whose long irons were very nearly perfect.
Yet history has treated Nelson somewhat grudgingly. The record of his deeds remains heroic, but his story has never taken on the proportions of a proper legend. The trouble is that Nelson made it all seem so sinfully easy. Legends do not just step up to the plate, take a warmup swing or two and then hit the ball over the centerfield fence. Legends first point to the centerfield fence.
Nelson was never one for histrionics. In his own mind he was always about equal parts golfer and farmer. His body may have been on the road playing golf for most of 14 years, but his soul lived on an imaginary piece of land somewhere in Texas. By the time he retired, at 34, he had found the place of his daydreams, and that is where he has stayed ever since.
May 6, 1979
Fairway Ranch lies off Route 114 in Roanoke, 22 miles north of Fort Worth—750 acres of rolling pastureland sustaining 68 head of beef cattle. At the end of a long asphalt drive, in an island of shade trees, is a comfortable two-story house of red brick, gray shingles and neat white trim. Flowers bloom, birds chirrup, snow-white guinea hens dart in and out of hedges and gray speckled Plymouth Rocks cluck in a hen house nearby.
"I just love chickens," said Nelson one late spring day as he surveyed his peaceable kingdom. "There's no creatures alive that's more appreciative of what you do for them. They're as nice as a dog."
The midday temperature that day was rising into the 90s, but inside, the ranch house was dim and cool. Lunch was from the garden that is Nelson's particular personal delight—new potatoes, sweet corn, young greens and strawberries. Nelson sat at the head of the long, gleaming table with his wife, Louise, at his right. He is a big man, 6'1" tall and about 185 pounds these days. His television persona, the one that grew out of his 10-year role as Chris Schenkel's yellow-jacketed sidekick on ABC's golf coverage, the one with the round, amiable face and mildly self-deprecating manner, is contradicted in his presence by his height, his bearing and the direct gaze of his pale blue eyes. As host at Fairway Ranch, saying grace at his own table over food from his own garden, he is assured and dominant.
There are few indications that an athlete is in residence at the Nelson house—no trophy cases, no room set aside as a shrine to youthful glories. The ranch is all the souvenir Nelson has ever needed. It is his perpetual trophy, a constant reminder of where he began, where he has been and how he got where he is.
The beginnings were in Fort Worth, in the hard '20s, when money and jobs were tight. Living near the Glen Garden golf course, Nelson began caddying for pocket money when he was 12 and soon enough was playing, too, becoming "a pretty fair, funky player," he recalls. At 16, to help make ends meet, he quit high school and went to work as a file clerk at the Fort Worth & Denver City Railway, practicing golf in the mornings as soon as the sky was light and in the evenings until it was too dark to see.
Two years later, with the Great Depression deepening, Nelson was laid off by the railroad, and since there were no jobs for anyone, anywhere, he gravitated to the pro shop and began to work on his game in earnest. He became good enough to qualify locally for the 1931 U.S. Amateur, but after scraping up enough money to get to Chicago on a day coach, he failed to make the field. "I had never seen or heard of a bent-grass green before," he says. "I had played on sand greens and Bermuda, but these were frightening, slick and fast. I three-putted everything."
In 1932 the first Texarkana Open was organized, offering $500 in prize money. On Nov. 20, Byron Nelson said goodby to his parents, got on a bus for the 200-mile ride to Texarkana, paid his $5 entry fee on the tee and became a pro.
"I didn't think of the tour as something glamorous," says Nelson. "I just wanted to play to beat somebody. My parents didn't know much about golf, but they gave me their blessings. They said, 'Be a good man and do right.' " Nelson finished third at Texarkana and won $75. A month later he was on his way to California for the start of the winter tour of 1932-33.
It was customary, and economically necessary, in those days for golf pros to work at a club and teach the game in the warm months. They hit the tournament road only when the clubs had closed down for the winter. The winter tour began in California in November or December, moved east across Texas to Florida and finally north, up the Atlantic Coast, into spring. Summer tournaments such as the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship were played in odd weeks taken from the club jobs.
Nelson's first winter tour was memorable chiefly for its brevity—exactly three tournaments. He had intended to play Pasadena, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Monica, but after Long Beach he was out of money and had to hitch a ride home. Fortunately, the pro's job at the Texarkana Country Club—salary $60 a month—opened up and Nelson got it. He lived in a rented room in town and worked diligently on his game in his ample free time, there being even fewer golfers at Texarkana than there had been at Glen Garden. In July, at the Texarkana Church of Christ Sunday School, he met Louise Shofner, the pretty, dark-haired daughter of a grocery store owner, and the two decided to get married, says Nelson, "as soon as I could get a dime together."
Late in the fall of 1933 Nelson went west again, this time with $600 borrowed from his prospective father-in-law and a Model A roadster—royal blue and cream with wire wheels—that a Texarkana Ford dealer had let him buy on time. He returned with enough money to repay Louise's father and buy Louise an engagement ring before he was broke again.
Broke or not, they were married in June of 1934, and when the Model A next headed west, Louise was along. In the opening round of the San Francisco Match Play Championship that year, Nelson, the unknown Texas kid, upset Lawson Little, winner of the British and U.S. Amateurs, 5 and 4, and a San Francisco newspaper headline read HONEYMOONER DEFEATS LAWSON LITTLE.
"Louise was so embarrassed she wouldn't leave the hotel," Byron remembers.
"We'd been married seven months" Louise protests.
In 1935 Nelson met George Jacobus, who was president of the PGA and head pro at the Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey. Jacobus invited Nelson to come to Ridgewood as his assistant, where he would be paid $400 a year plus whatever he could make giving lessons.
Nelson spent two seasons with Jacobus, playing few tournaments but working harder than ever on his game. Jacobus was a teacher of the old school, but he was interested in some of Nelson's unorthodox ideas and encouraged him at a crucial time.
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.
In hand-to-hand combat, though, Nelson was the leader. If one counts a 1927 Fort Worth caddie tournament in which 15-year-old Nelson beat 15-year-old Ben Hogan in a playoff, the rivalry between Nelson and Hogan produced five head-to-head meetings. Nelson won four of them. In 1939, when the Ryder Cup matches scheduled for Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. were canceled because of the war, challenge matches among the American players were held at the Detroit Golf Club. When Hogan and Nelson met there, Hogan won. In 1940, when they met in a playoff for the Texas Open, Nelson won. But the two great encounters were their quarterfinal match in the 1941 PGA Championship at Cherry Hills in Denver and the 18-hole playoff for the 1942 Masters in Augusta.
Sandy Tatum, now the president of the United States Golf Association, was a 20-year-old Stanford golfer on his way home to California after the 1941 NCAA championships at Ohio State. He stopped off in Denver to visit friends and walked the Cherry Hills course every day, watching one good match after another. "But the classic was Hogan and Nelson," Tatum remembers, 38 years later. "Thirty-six holes on a great golf course on a perfect day. Hogan played a truly Hoganesque morning round, and having played such a round, he was one down to Nelson, which says all I can say about the quality of the golf Nelson played that morning.
"In the afternoon they reproduced the round they had played in the morning, 17 virtually flawless holes of golf. They arrived at the 18th hole with Nelson still one-up. Nelson's drive was on the right side of the fairway, Hogan's was in the middle and a few yards in front. Nelson then hit a two-iron that I can only describe as symphonic. Every time I look at that hole I visualize it against the background of what it was that day. I relive seeing that swing and watching that ball against that blue sky."
Nelson's ball came to rest five feet to the right of the pin. Hogan's second shot also landed on the green, but a good 25 feet from the hole. Hogan putted close, then Nelson sank his five-footer for a birdie and the fourth match between the two was over. Nelson had won 2-up.
Nelson's own memory of that PGA is marred by the nightmare the tournament eventually became for him. After Hogan, he beat Gene Sarazen in the semifinals and then, against Vic Ghezzi, a pro who up to that point had never seriously contended for a major title, Nelson was 3-up through 27 holes of the final match. At that point he began to feel the match slipping away from him. "It was awful," he says. "I could feel myself letting down, but there wasn't much I could do about it. It was fatigue, I guess."
Whatever it was, Ghezzi evened the match by the 36th green, and they went to extra holes. They halved the 1st with pars, but then, on the 2nd, they both missed the green and had to chip on. They hit identical shots, a little too strong, and both balls ended up a few feet beyond the hole and very close together. A measuring tape was produced to determine who would putt first, and both balls, it turned out, were exactly 42 inches from the hole. So a coin was flipped. Nelson lost and had to putt first.
The stymie rule was still in effect in 1941, so both balls remained on the green, where they had landed. The only way a ball could be lifted and marked was if it interfered with the stance of the opponent. When Nelson was asked whether Ghezzi's ball would hinder him, inexplicably he said no. Then, in taking his stance over the putt, Nelson inadvertently touched Ghezzi's ball with the toe of his shoe and moved it slightly. Ghezzi should have been awarded the hole and the match on the spot. Instead, Ghezzi announced that he had no intention of winning the match that way, that no penalty should be charged because no damage had been done. Incredibly, the referee's decision, after much discussion and delay, was that if Ghezzi said it was O.K., it was O.K.
"Well, it wasn't O.K," says Nelson, shuddering involuntarily at the memory. "After all that, I still had to make a 42-inch putt. There's no way I can win this match this way, I'm thinking. All over the world people will say.... Well, I didn't miss the putt on purpose, but those are the things I was thinking about. Ghezzi won the match fair and square, twice. It was the most stupid thing I ever did in a golf tournament. It was terrible. Terrible!"
Hogan and Nelson met for the last time at the 1942 Masters. Hogan, who had been eight strokes off the pace after 36 holes, shot 67 on Saturday and 70 on Sunday to tie Nelson at 280. Ties at Augusta are decided by sudden-death playoffs these days, but in 1942 a tie meant 18 holes on Monday. To watch this particular playoff, between the two best players in the game, many of the other golfers, with no stake in the outcome themselves, stayed on an extra day to see it, an extraordinary tribute.
Nelson spent the night at the Richmond Hotel in downtown Augusta throwing up, a not unusual occurrence. "There were easier people to have a playoff against than Ben Hogan, you know," he says. "I woke up on the morning of the playoff just miserable. Ben found out about it and came down to my room and said, 'If you're sick we'll just postpone the playoff until later.' I answered, 'No, Ben, let's go ahead and play it.'
"Really now, this wasn't as noble of me as you might think. The upset stomach business had happened to me before, and every time I had been in a keyed-up, nervous condition, I had played rather well. So I staggered to the golf course, but even when I got there I wasn't sure I'd make it. I remember Ben asking me again how I felt, and I told him, 'Just awful.' "
Nelson felt even worse when his first tee shot hit a pine tree off the right side of the fairway and lodged under a small fir, from which spot he could only play out lefthanded. He double-bogeyed that hole, bogeyed the 4th and was three shots down to Hogan before he knew what had happened to him.
"But somewhere around the 5th hole," Nelson says, "my adrenaline glands started to going, and pretty soon I felt just as strong as I could be. I had that old spring in my arms and legs." He birdied the 6th and eagled the 8th, taking the lead when Hogan parred it—then birdied 11, 12 and 13 and played 14, 15 and 16 in par. Hogan played the same 11 holes in one under par and lost five strokes. The final score was Nelson 69, Hogan 70.
A year later Hogan was in the Army and Nelson was back at his club job, and the two never again met head to head.
World War II produced some odd sights on American golf courses. Beef cattle roamed at Baltusrol. Augusta National became a turkey farm. Patriotic members of Wykagyl, in New York's Westchester County, plowed up their 1st and 2nd fairways and turned them into victory gardens. Oak Park in Chicago raised its own chickens for the kitchen, and Twin Brooks in New Jersey strung nets in front of ponds at the 8th and 10th holes to save its dwindling supply of golf balls.
Gas rationing did the greatest damage. When weekend golfers found they could no longer get to the course on a Saturday morning, they abandoned their memberships in droves. Tournament golf was at a virtual standstill. The winter tour, usually made up of some two dozen tournaments, was reduced to two by 1943. Such were the circumstances in which Byron Nelson was reaching the peak of his talent. He was poised to make sports history at a moment when sports, and most of the rest of human endeavor, were being eclipsed by larger events.
From 1940 to 1945, Nelson was the head professional at the Inverness Country Club in Toledo during the summer months, but during most of the war he spent the largest part of his time performing for wartime charities. He and Jug McSpaden, an old pal from the early years on the tour, were both classified 4F, Nelson because of hemophilia, McSpaden for sinusitis. They became a team, and in 1943 alone they played 110 exhibitions on behalf of the PGA at military hospitals, War Bond sales rallies and fund-raising events for the Red Cross and the USO. They crossed and recrossed the continent, usually traveling by train, sleeping in berths when they could get them, sitting in chair cars when they couldn't, standing in endless lines for meals and always—because they were neither soldiers, children, women nor old—being served last. Occasionally they were treated shabbily. Louise Nelson remembers driving through Arizona during gas rationing and having people shake their fists when they saw Nelson's Texas license plates and his young, apparently able and non-uniformed body at the wheel.
Nevertheless, hardly a week passed that a newspaper somewhere did not print a photograph of Nelson, or of Nelson and McSpaden, at a military hospital, demonstrating a golf shot to an attentive semicircle of young men with short haircuts and GI bathrobes. Their only pay was their expenses.
Once, for 19 days and nights, Nelson barnstormed with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Johnny Weissmuller. The four would play an exhibition match during the day and then auction off their clubs for charity. In the evenings Hope and Crosby would entertain at an armory or a civic center, where audiences would buy War Bonds to see the show. Nelson's admiration for his extroverted traveling companions is still boundless. "Hope and Crosby were the two funniest men together I ever saw," he says, "and their part was so much harder than mine. They played golf and then they'd entertain. All I had to do was stand around and laugh and applaud."
By 1944 the worst of the war for the Allies was past, and as the end became perceivable, spirits lightened. Fred Corcoran, the PGA tour manager and publicist, was able to schedule 22 tournaments that year. With the luck of the Boston Irish, he also just happened to have a star on hand ready to be reborn. Nelson won seven of Corcoran's 1944 tournaments. Except for a soured putter, he would have won the revived PGA Championship, too, played at the Manito Golf and Country Club in Spokane, Wash., before the largest crowds in the tournament's history. The PGA was won by an unknown. Private Bob Hamilton of Evansville, Ind.
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."
After six wins, Byron told Louise he wished he could blow up and get it over with. Instead he went to the golf course that day and shot a 66. People could scarcely believe what they were seeing. Tommy Armour, the famous Scottish pro who in the late '20s and early '30s won the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA, said, "Nelson plays golf shots like a virtuoso. There is no type of problem he can't handle. High shots, low shots, with the wind or across it, hooks or fades—he has absolute control of them all. He is the finest golfer I have ever seen."
Meanwhile, Nelson was aiming for the PGA Championship in July at the Moraine Country Club in Dayton, Ohio. His loss the year before to Hamilton had been an enormous disappointment and he was determined to redeem himself. But when he found himself two holes down to Mike Turnesa with only four holes to play in the second round, his hopes for redemption seemed about to go down the drain together with the longest winning streak—eight straight tournaments at that point—in the history of the game.
However, one of the characteristics of Nelson's play had always been his ability to produce wondrous finishing bursts at just such moments. He shot birdie, birdie, eagle and par to win the match one-up on the 36th green. Poor Turnesa, who had shot 68, 69—seven under par—only to lose, moaned, "How can you beat a guy like that? I never played better golf in my life, and when I had him 2-up going to the 15th, I felt confident I was going to win. Then what happened? Why in the next three holes he throws two birdies and an eagle at me!"
The final was an anticlimactic 4 and 3 win over Sam Byrd, the former baseball player. With it, Nelson had won his fifth and last major championship, and the Streak was still alive. The 10th win was the rich Ail-American Open at Tarn O'Shanter in Chicago, and No. 11 was the Canadian Open.
The end finally came the third week of August in Memphis, when Fred Haas Jr., an amateur, won the tournament and Nelson finished fourth. But there were no headlines and no pauses for standing ovations. In fact, hardly anybody noticed, because on Aug. 6 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and on Aug. 14 the Japanese surrendered and World War II came to an end.
One year later Byron Nelson quit tournament golf for good. Why he retired when he did, at 34, and so quickly after his greatest successes, has been a frequent subject of locker-room conjecture. It has been suggested that he retreated rather than face Hogan's inevitable challenge. It has been said that he lost his nerve, that he had a bad stomach and that he had no stomach for competition.
The truth is that Nelson at 34 was old beyond his age and tired beyond endurance. In the fall of 1945, when he went elk hunting in a remote region of Idaho for two weeks, he had had, by Louise Nelson's calculations, exactly 11 days away from golf since the beginning of the war. He dragged himself through the 1946 season, but his heart was on a ranch outside Fort Worth.
At the PGA Championship in Portland, Ore., in August of 1946, he lost to Porky Oliver in the quarterfinals and then announced he was going home to stay. His face was haggard and his long frame was 18 pounds underweight. Though he managed an occasional smile for the gallery, when he returned to the locker room it was gone and his blue eyes were dull. A few weeks later he told a reporter what was going through his mind. "I'm just tired. It has been a long grind," he said. "There were days when I thought I would scream if I had to go to the course. It was week in and week out for years. I tried to give my best to golf. Now I want to realize a dream. I've got 500 pasture acres and 130 more under cultivation. I've got my dad and mother with me and...well, that's the story."
Louise Nelson put down her fork and glanced across the luncheon table at her husband. "I don't think all the truth has been told," she said, "and maybe now is as good a time as any." Byron, married to the same woman for 45 years, did not need to ask what she was about to say.
"He kept on wanting and wanting a ranch, but I didn't want him to have one because he didn't know anything about ranching and I was afraid he would lose everything he had worked so hard for. But he kept on wanting it. So finally I said, 'All right, but you cannot touch any of our investments. You have to earn every bit of it.' I said, 'I've got both feet in concrete and I'm not changing. We've worked hard and I'm afraid you'll lose it ranching.'
"Looking back on it I realize I was being selfish. But anyway, he got himself busy and he made a lot of money. That was 1945. When he had saved up over $50,000 in cash, he thought he could start looking. But it wasn't enough money, and I said, 'Well, you're just going to have to work another year. You'll have to work through the National Open.' We made a pact we wouldn't tell anyone, and we didn't. He almost won that Open. It was when his caddie stepped on his ball."
The 1946 U.S. Open at Canterbury in Cleveland was the first in five long years, and the galleries were huge. Fairways were not roped off in those days, which meant that 12,000 people raced to get a spot behind each shot as the leaders played their final rounds. At the 13th hole of the morning round (the last two rounds of the Open were both played on the same day. Open Saturday, until 1965) Nelson's caddie, a young man named Eddie Martin, still in uniform and on furlough from the Army, accidentally stepped on Nelson's ball in his effort to get out of the way of the on-rushing gallery. The error cost Nelson a penalty stroke.
In spite of the penalty, Nelson reached the 71st hole needing only a par and a bogey to win. Instead he took two bogeys, ending up in a three-way tie with Vic Ghezzi and Lloyd Mangrum, then lost to Mangrum in the second 18-hole playoff the next day; the three had shot identical 72s in the first playoff round. Of those last two holes of regulation play, one newspaper said, "After playing superb golf, perhaps the finest from tee to green ever seen in any championship. Nelson, the great shotmaker, became just another golfer...."
"I cried for a week after that," said Louise. "But I was just selfish enough that I wanted him to go out a real champion and be able to say, 'Well, boys, that's that.' So he went on and played through the PGA in Portland. But he wasn't playing the way he had been."
"I had already quit in my mind," said Nelson quietly.
The last scene of the 14-year adventure that had begun on a bus leaving Fort Worth for Texarkana in 1932 was not the kind a Hollywood writer of the period would have dictated. But the epilogue was. No discharged GI in America was any happier to be going home than Byron Nelson was in 1946. The ranch had cost him all he had, but it was finally his, and the job of transforming it from the dried-up derelict of a place that it was when he first saw it into the tranquil oasis it is today was a labor made sweeter by its long postponement.
Only once more did Nelson play golf for the prize money in it. He had been retired four years, and by then had realized that he was going to need more income than the ranch and his modest investments could produce. At that point he got a call from Jim Shriver, a MacGregor golf-equipment salesman. Shriver suggested a series of exhibition matches in the Pacific Northwest, Shriver's sales territory, for the spring of 1951. Nelson agreed and Shriver set about booking the matches.
But those four years of retirement might as well have been 40, so quickly had Nelson's star descended and Hogan's risen. The memory of Nelson's triumphs had dissipated like mist on a summer morning. Shriver could book only three matches. The whole project seemed doomed until Nelson received an invitation to play in the 1951 Bing Crosby pro-am with Ed Lowery, an old friend from San Francisco.
"I thought to myself," says Nelson, "if I play O.K. I could get a little publicity and maybe I can make those matches." So he went to work on his game for a month, and when January arrived he went to Pebble Beach. He not only played "O.K.," he won the tournament, the first he had played in four years, beating Cary Middlecoff by three strokes.
The $2,000 prize for first place was welcome, but the publicity worked wonders. Within a week, 26 exhibition matches had been booked. Every day except Mondays for a month that spring, at a fee of $300 a stop, Nelson would play an 18-hole match in the morning, attend a luncheon, stage a clinic, make a speech at a dinner, then get into his car and move on to the next town.
The occasional golf of Nelson's retirement years has been some of his best. Lowery recalls a time at the Crosby in the mid-'50s when Nelson shot a 70 in the first round and was close to the pro lead in the tournament. "We were playing the 8th at Cypress on the second day," says Lowery. "Byron's second shot was short of the green in a bunker. I'm on the green, putting for a birdie from six feet. Byron had his caddie pick up his ball, and I said. 'Byron, you're four strokes off the lead!' He said, 'I'm here for fun; I'm not playing for money.' I didn't understand it, but he lived by it. He was just playing for my sake and for Bing Crosby's."
There were also individual shots as memorable as any he hit in the '30s and '40s, and he savors them as any golfer would. "At Colonial in Fort Worth, the 5th fairway slopes into a ravine, a low area with trees overhanging." he says. "I was in a position where I had to hit the ball under the trees but skin over a bank, and the shot had to hook because a straight shot would go into the river. So I took a two-iron and it just missed the bank and landed eight feet from the pin. Sometimes you can get a great kick out of a shot that somebody watching might think wasn't anything special. It gives you a happy feeling when it works."
Tucked away in the closet at the ranch is a cardboard carton filled to overflowing with pictures taken when Byron and Louise were seeing the world for the first time. It is a time capsule in which are distilled all those years when the work was hard and the rewards were meager but when every sight was a new sight. Here are Byron and Jug in front of an eight-foot snowbank at Lake Tahoe. Louise and Eva McSpaden in front of the same snowbank, Eva wearing a fox fur jacket, Louise with a silly little hat tipped over her right eye. Byron standing next to a saguaro cactus four times as tall as he. Horseshoe Falls with a note penciled on the back: "Water is blue as can be and clear as a whistle." Byron and Louise standing ankle-deep in Lake Erie, he with his pants rolled up to his calves, she clutching the hem of her skirt ("It was our first anniversary and I was in the doghouse. I was supposed to take Louise to see Guy Lombardo and I didn't"). Nelson in a pony cart in Aiken, S.C., in a copper mine in Butte, Mont., in a cloud of locusts in Argentina, under the Oakland Bay Bridge, in front of the Miami Biltmore, aboard the Manhattan with the 1937 Ryder Cup team on its way to England.
"I look back now and realize how young I was when I quit," said Nelson recently, from the vantage point of his 68th year. "But still with no regrets. I did what I did. I didn't feel I had no more worlds to conquer. I would have liked to win the Open once more, for instance. But I had bought the ranch and I really wanted to leave. When I did. I felt free, a different type of freedom, and I loved it."
Nobody had any trouble keeping Byron down on the farm, but Louise hadn't yet seen Paree. So in 1955, when Byron was 43, the Nelsons went to Paris. They stayed at the Ritz, and while Louise toured, Byron won the French Open at La Boulie. He was the first American to win it since Walter Hagen in 1920. The Nelsons celebrated by going to the Folies-Bergère, and then when it was time to leave. Nelson applied his winner's purse, 10,000 francs, to his hotel bill. By the time he had settled up and had tipped all the people who needed tipping, he had 500 francs left, which is the way he wanted it. Then he and Louise went home to Texas.