'Lord Byron' had the swing, the laurels, and the streak above all

Tuesday, September 26th 2006, 3:15 pm
By: News On 6

IRVING, Texas (AP) _ Byron Nelson's mechanics were so perfect that the U.S. Golf Association nicknamed its robotic swing device the ``Iron Byron.'' He was such a Masters icon that Augusta National named a bridge after him in 1958, then a few years ago added a statue of him, too.

And the man known as ``Lord Byron'' was so beloved in golf he became the first player after whom a PGA Tour stop was named.

Yet what will forever define the story of the courtly Texan with the elegant stroke and personality to match always comes back to 1945, when Nelson completed the greatest year in the history of the game: 18 wins, and a mesmerizing 11 of those in a row.

``The Streak'' is a record that no golfer has ever approached. Many believe no one ever will.

Nelson died Tuesday at 94, the end of a life spanning eras from hickory shafts and meager prize money to titanium heads and multimillionaires.

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.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office said he died of natural causes. A funeral service is planned for 1:30 p.m. Friday at Richland Hills Church of Christ.

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.

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.''

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.''

Nelson's connections helped make his event the No. 1 fundraiser for charity on the PGA Tour _ more than $94 million since the tournament's inception, including $6.3 million this year. The U.S. House recently voted to award Nelson a Congressional Gold Medal for philanthropy; the legislation, Congress' highest award, is pending in the Senate.

``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.''

Nelson held the PGA Tour records for most consecutive made cuts (113) and for single-season scoring average (68.33) until both were broken by Woods, who called him ``the greatest ambassador golf has ever known.''

``He retired early,'' Woods said early Wednesday from the American Express Championship outside London. ``All he wanted to do was make enough money to buy his ranch. If he had kept playing like guys do now, more than likely he would have won more tournaments than anyone.''

Nelson's mark on the Masters was honored in 1958 when the path that takes golfers over Rae's Creek to the 13th tee was named Nelson Bridge, commemorating his final-day charge over the 12th and 13th holes that sent him to victory in 1937. He lers' champions dinner at Augusta National, but he did not make the trip this year, turning the role over to Crenshaw.

``He sent me a note saying he probably wouldn't make it to the next Masters, so he must have had an inkling,'' Woods said.

John Byron Nelson was born Feb. 4, 1912, on the family farm in Waxahachie, Texas, and started in golf in 1922 as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. One year, he won the caddies' championship, defeating Hogan in a playoff.

After graduating from high school, Nelson got a job as a file clerk in the accounting office of the Forth Worth and Denver Railroad and played golf in his spare time. He lost his job during the Great Depression but found work in 1931 with a bankers' magazine.

The same year, he entered his first tournament, the National Amateur in Chicago, where he missed qualifying by one stroke. With jobs hard to find, he turned professional in 1932.

Nelson was excused from military service during World War II because he was a hemophiliac. With many foes in the service, he faced weakened fields _ still, his accomplishments in the war years were astounding.

In 1944, he won 13 of the 23 tournaments he played. But it was the following year that will forever live as one of the greatest in golf history. Besides his 18 wins and streak of 11, he also finished second seven times, was never out of the top 10 and at one point played 19 consecutive rounds under 70.

His streak is honored in a series of displays at the course where his tournament is held. The course also boasts a larger-than-life statue of Nelson; by Tuesday night, several flowers had been placed at its feet.

Nelson was voted AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1944 and 1945. He was elected to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953 and to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. He's now sixth on the career wins list, behind Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan, Palmer and Woods.

Although Nelson continued to play in an occasional tournament after 1946, he retreated to his 673-acre ranch in Roanoke and never returned to competitive golf full time. He spent time on the course in the 1960s as one of golf's early TV announcers.

Nelson developed a widely imitated ``Texas style'' swing that was upright and compact, unlike some of the unwieldy swings of early players.

``The mechanics of my swing were such that it required no thought,'' Nelson said. ``It's like eating. You don't think to feed yourself. If you have to think about your swing it takes that much away from your scoring concentration.''

Besides his wife, Nelson is survived by his brother Charles Nelson and sister Ellen Scherman.