June 25, 2007

Lord Byron's Lucky 13

My math has Nelson winning 13 in a row (not 11) 60 years ago

Here we are in the 60-year anniversary of one of the great years in golf—1945—and that's all the excuse I need to clack out another piece on Lord Byron Nelson, whose name, I fear, is becoming unknown to today's youth because history doesn't make enough noise for youth to care about it.

Today's youth only likes things that are loud, which means if it's loud they must be having fun. So my guess is that today's youth has bothered to know only two things about golf: One, Tiger Woods is rich and the greatest player since a bunch of dead guys, and two, Arnold Palmer invented the game 200 years ago when he was dating Mary Britney BeyoncÈ Queen of Scots.

As for Lord Byron Nelson, today's youth might well think he's the younger brother of Lord Horatio Nelson, the man who stood on a London street corner and shouted, "Never take Trafalgar in college. It's harder than algebra."

Today's youth learns most things from watching the "mainstream" TV networks. They know that CBS forced Dan Rather to resign as President of the United States, they know from NBC that Rather was succeeded by Donald Trump, and they've learned from ABC that the U.S. Supreme Court consists of nine desperate housewives.

But back to His Lordship. You might wonder how it's possible after all these years to say anything new about Byron and all the stuff he did back in '45, when he was known in all the leads in all the papers in all the world as "golf's mechanical man." To wonder such a thing, of course, is to underestimate this bureau's talent for fondling stats and taking curled-up naps with his memory and research material.

Here's what might be new to you but is sort of old to me. It wasn't 11 wins in a row—the streak—and 18 on the year for Byron in 1945. It was 13 in a row and 20 for the year.

The win streak started in early March, and right when it seemed to be Sam Snead's year, not Byron's. Snead had won four tournaments by the time they reached the Miami Four Ball, but Nelson teamed with Jug McSpaden to grab this partnership deal, whipping Denny Shute and Sam Byrd, 8 and 6, in the final.

The next week Byron topped Snead by four strokes in a 36-hole playoff for the Charlotte Open, which was the closest he came to having the streak end before it got started. He then won the Opens of Greensboro, Durham and Atlanta, making it five in a row on April 8, and that's when the tour, for a lack of sponsors or courses, took a two-month leave of absence.

Enter something billed as the "World Championship." It matched Nelson against Snead over 72 holes on May 26 and 27. Supposedly, it was 36 holes of stroke play at Fresh Meadow on Long Island—old Fresh Meadow, near the World's Fair site, where Gene Sarazen won the '32 U. S. Open—and 36 holes of match play at Essex County Country Club in West Orange, N.J. Although Sam led by one shot after the first 36, the overall result after 72 holes showed Nelson with a total of 272 to Snead's 276, so most sportswriters at the time declared Lord Byron the "winner"—and so do I. Now, today.

This made it a half-dozen. After which Byron reeled off six more victories at the Montreal Open, the Philadelphia Invitational, the Chicago Victory Open, the PGA Championship at Moraine Country Club in Ohio, the Tam O'Shanter back in Chicago—winning by 11 over Lt. Ben Hogan, who was a month away from getting out of the Army Air Corps—and finally the Canadian Open.

But wait. Lord Byron wasn't done. The following week in a 36-hole event in Spring Lake, N.J.—record books list it as the Spring Lake Pro-Member—in a full field of touring pros he fired 69-71 to win by a stroke over Snead and Herman Barron.

When the streak ended in Memphis a week later it was either 11, 12 or 13 in a row. Byron played in nine more tournaments the rest of the year, and won four of them. His last win was in the Glen Garden Invitational back in Fort Worth, his hometown and the place where he and Hogan had caddied as kids. That chilly December a teenager—me—watched him win by eight over Jimmy Demaret, the runner-up, in a tournament where Snead trailed by 13 and Hogan by 14.

It was Byron's 18th, 19th or 20th win of the year.

I know what my math says.