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Legend Byron Nelson dies aged 94

Byron Nelson, who had the greatest year in the history of professional golf when he won 18 tournaments in 1945, including a record 11 in a row, died Tuesday. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office. No cause of death was listed on its Web site.

Known as Lord Byron for his elegant swing and gentle manner, Nelson won 31 of 54 tournaments in 1944-45. 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."

That incentive pushed Nelson to become one of the best players of his era. He won the Masters in 1937 and '42, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and '45.

He also finished second once in the U.S. Open, twice in the Masters and three times in the PGA. Nelson played in British Open only twice, finishing fifth in 1937.

Nelson's long, fluid swing is considered the model of the modern way to strike a golf ball and his kind, caring style with fans and competitors made him one of the most well-liked people in sports.

"I don't know very much," Nelson said in a 1997 interview with The Associated Press. "I know a little bit about golf. I know how to make a stew. And I know how to be a decent man."

His second British Open was in 1955, when he was no longer a serious competitor, although he did win the French Open on that trip for his last professional victory. His prize money, however, was not enough to pay the hotel bill.

"I had to put up another $200," he told the AP with a huge smile.

Nelson was born Feb. 4, 1912, on the family farm 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 Ben Hogan in a playoff.

It was the beginning of a rivalry that never really materialized. Though they were born six months apart, Nelson won all five of his major championships before he was 34 and Hogan won all nine of his after he was 34.

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 started out competing against Gene Sarazen and lived to see Tiger Woods, an era that went from hickory shafts to titanium heads.

He made an appearance each year at the Masters, joining Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen in hitting the ceremonial first balls, and hosted the Byron Nelson Classic each May.

"I did not ever dream in my wildest imagination there would be as much money or that people would hit the ball so far," Nelson said in his 1997 interview with the AP.

"I only won $182,000 in my whole life," he said. "In 1937, I got fifth-place money at the British Open -- $187 -- and it cost me $3,000 to play because I had to take a one-month leave of absence from my club job to go."

As a hemophiliac, Nelson was excused from military service during World War II. But despite the weak fields, his accomplishments in the war years were astounding.

In 1944, he won 13 of the 23 tournaments he played. The following year he won a record 18 times in 31 starts, including 11 in a row -- also a record. Nelson finished second seven times in 1945, was never out of the top 10 and at one point played 19 consecutive rounds under 70. His stroke average of 68.33 for the season is still the record.

Asked in 1997 how the winning streak affected him financially, Nelson said: "Well, I got some Wheaties, but not until after I had won seven or eight in a row did I get them. And I got 200 bucks."

The attention on Nelson as the streak lengthened grew quicker than the money.

"There wasn't any pressure at first, but it pyramided as the string grew," Nelson remembered. "It got to be like an auction. The headlines would say, `Nelson wins No. 5, can he make it 6?' or `Who can stop Nelson?"'

He was voted AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1944 and 1945. Nelson's 52 PGA Tour victories -- a mark tied by Woods this year -- was fifth on the career list behind Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan and Arnold Palmer. He was elected to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953 and to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.

In the 1960s he became one of golf's early TV announcers.

Although Nelson continued to play in an occasional tournament after 1946, he retreated to his 673-acre ranch in Roanoke, Texas, and never returned to competitive golf full time.

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."

Nelson, who tutored eight-time major championship winner Tom Watson, had a swing players envied.

"I once watched him hit 20 drivers off a fairway in practice, and the trajectory never varied," recalled Bob Toski, who toured with Nelson and became a famous teacher.

"And he could hit a 1-iron or a 2-iron that carried over 200 yards no more than 15 feet in the air," Toski said. "I've never seen anybody else hit the ball quite the way he did."

Asked in 1997 what made Woods special as a golfer, Nelson sounded as if he were describing his own swing.

"He has perfect balance," Nelson said. "His coordination from the feet up is all synchronized. And you've got to feel through your sight. He does that great."

Then, with a graceful demonstration of the part of the golf swing from the waist on the downswing to the waist on the follow through, Nelson said: "From here to here, you can't see anything because he moves so fast."

Beside the flowing swing, Nelson saw another similarity.

"I was taught to do the best I could possibly do," Nelson said. "When he hits a bad shot, he doesn't like it. He wants to do the best he can do and when he doesn't, he doesn't like it."

When Byron Nelson did the best he could do, he was among the best to ever play the game of golf.

 

 




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