IRVING, Texas - Byron Nelson’s graceful swing and gentle manner earned him the nickname “Lord Byron,” a tribute to the courtly Texan whose kind, caring style with fans and competitors made him one of the most well-liked figures in sports.
But what will forever set Nelson apart is a single record, one that no golfer has ever approached: his 11 straight tournament victories in 1945, the greatest year in the history of golf.
Nelson died Tuesday at 94, the end of a life spanning eras from hickory shafts and meager prize money to titanium heads and multimillionaires. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office said he died of natural causes.
His wife, Peggy Nelson, told family friend Angela Enright that her husband appeared fine as she left their Roanoke home for Bible study Tuesday morning.
“I’m so proud of you,” he told her, something he often said about her church involvement, Enright said. When she returned, Peggy Nelson found her husband on the back porch, which faces the woodworking shop where he spent much of his free time.
Arnold Palmer called Nelson “one of the greatest players who ever lived.”
“I don’t think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year,” Palmer said in a statement.
The closest any player has come to Nelson’s streak is six, first by Ben Hogan in 1948. When Tiger Woods reached that number in 1999-2000, Nelson was typically gracious when putting his own mark into perspective.
“Anytime you make a record stand for 55 years, why, you’ve done pretty good,” he told The Associated Press.
Last month, when Woods’ current streak of PGA tour wins reached five and counting, he didn’t sound confident that Nelson’s feat would fall anytime soon, comparing it to Joe DiMaggio’s elusive 56-game hitting streak.
“In this day and age, with this competition, to win 11 in a row would be almost unheard of,” Woods said. “What Byron accomplished, that goes down as one of the great years in the history of our sport. ... DiMaggio’s record, I see that being broken more than winning 11 in a row.”
Nelson won 18 tournaments in 1945, also a record for a calendar year. He captured 31 of 54 tournaments in 1944-45, and won a total of 52 events, including five majors: the Masters in 1937 and ’42, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and ’45.
Then, at age 34, he retired after the 1946 season to spend more time on his Texas ranch.
“When I was playing regularly, I had a goal,” Nelson recalled years later. “I could see the prize money going into the ranch, buying a tractor, or a cow. It gave me incentive.”
Woods called him “the greatest ambassador golf has ever known.”
Lm Otero / AP
Tiger Woods, left, chats with Byron Nelson on the 15th green during the Byron Nelson Championship pro-am in Irving, Texas on May 11, 2005.
Nelson’s long, fluid swing is considered the model of the modern way to strike a golf ball. In 1968, he was the first player to have a PGA Tour event named for him, an honor that remained his alone until the former Bay Hill Invitational, scheduled for March, was renamed the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“We have lost a giant in the game ... someone who elevated the game in every way: as a player, an ambassador and a gentleman,” said Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and winner of Nelson’s tournament in 1983. “Whoever came up with ‘Lord Byron,’ they got it exactly right.”
“Our players, young and old, looked to Byron as the consummate role model of our sport,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “His legacy spans across his historic performances, the gentle and dignified way he carried himself and his tremendous contributions to golf and society.”
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