In golf there is a constant search to identify the ''dominant''
player. But no one truly dominates in golf. It's the sport in
which the so-called best player actually wins less frequently
than in any other. At the highest levels golf is a game of losing.
Certainly Bobby Jones in 1930, when he won the Grand Slam, and
Ben Hogan in 1953, when he won all three of the major
championships he entered, dominated the golf scene, but Jones
played only five events and Hogan only seven in those years.
Greats like Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson and Price have all been
called dominant, but none has ever won even half the events he
entered in a given year.
Hard-core, week-in and week-out domination over an entire season
has happened only once in men's golf. Byron Nelson did it in
1945 when he won 18 official tournaments and, remarkably, 11
On the 50th anniversary of those feats--commemorated last week at
the tournament named for the 83-year-old Nelson--it is fair to
call them the most break-resistant records ever attained in a
major individual sport. Even extending the criteria to include
team sports, the only milestones as unassailable are those set
by a pair of old-time major league pitchers: Jack Chesbro's 41
victories for the New York Yankees in 1904 and Cy Young's career
total of 511.
May 21, 1995
The magnitude of Nelson's feat is so great that, with his 52
official victories, including five major championships, over a
playing career that lasted only 11 full seasons, it justifies
rating him as the greatest golfer of all time.
It all depends on the criteria used. For overall record, Jack
Nicklaus is a clear choice. For rising to the occasion, Jones.
For sheer control of a golf ball, Hogan. For enduring as a
competitive force for the longest period, Sam Snead. But no one
achieved the absolute pinnacle of the game and stayed there the
way Nelson did in 1945. His best was the best ever.
Check the numbers. Nelson's 68.33 scoring average over the 120
rounds he played in '45, his 67.68 final-round scoring average,
his consecutive rounds under 70 (19) have never been matched.
Also in 1945, Nelson added to a streak that would ultimately see
him play 86 straight events over nine years in which he finished
out of the top 10 only once (a tie for 13th in Pensacola in his
final year of regular competition, 1946).
Nelson naysayers will dispute statistical analysis, positing
that PGA tour competition was still thin because of World War
II, and that the mostly dried-out courses, while often ragged,
were easier to score low on than today's layouts. They will have
a point, but one that is weakened by the fact that Nelson often
went head-to-head with Hogan and Snead in 1945, and he was
playing with clubs and balls that wouldn't stand up to today's
standards for consistency and distance. On top of that, consider
that in the 16 stroke-play events Nelson won, his average
winning margin was an astounding 6.25 strokes.
Nelson's accomplishments aren't just about numbers but rather
about winning in the game of losing. Nelson won like no golfer
before him ever had and no one has since (the nearest was Hogan,
who, perhaps spurred on by his perennial rival, won 13 times in
1946). In fact, Nelson's 18th victory, the Fort Worth Open, was
fittingly played at Glen Garden Country Club, where he and Hogan
both began as caddies.
For all the pure shot makers, charismatic figures and steely
competitors the game has seen, golf's final measure-and ultimate
challenge-is simply to win. Ask Greg Norman, or any other top
player of today who has struggled to get his career victory
total into double figures. Victory takes something special. Or
ask Nelson, who understood the dynamic perhaps better than any
golfer who ever lived.
''Winners,'' he told Al Barkow in Gettin' to the Dance Floor, a
collection of interviews with golfing greats, ''are ... a
different breed of cat.... They have an inner drive and are
willing to give of themselves whatever it takes to win. It's a
discipline that a lot of people are not willing to impose on
themselves. It takes a lot of energy, a different way of
thinking. It makes a different demand on you than to just go out
and win money.''
It was that demand as much as anything that drove Nelson off the
tour. It's the same demand that has caused the latest player to
be called dominant, Nick Price, to abruptly take a
three-tournament break to combat encroaching burnout. It's the
hard road, and one that has grown harder with the rise of the
professional game's comfort level. Today's players, and
tomorrow's, should recognize Nelson's particular genius. For
while his records are unattainable, the mind-set that made