Curtis Strange has set a single-season money record on the men's pro golf tour this year with earnings of more than $540,000. Very impressive. But if Byron Nelson were playing for today's prize money with as much success as he enjoyed 40 years ago, he'd have earned about $2 million!
In 1945, Nelson had the finest year in the history of golf. He won 18 tournaments -- including 11 in a row. His stroke average per round was a scorching 68.33.
No one has come near Nelson's records and almost certainly no one ever will.
Says Lee Trevino, ``I couldn't win 11 in a year, let alone in a row, if I played all over the world and counted the Uganda and Beirut Opens.''
Even so, Nelson made less money in 1945 than one single first-place finish pays now in many tournaments: $63,500. And even most of that was in war bonds!
``I have no regrets about the money,'' says Nelson, a 73-year-old gentleman rancher who lives not far from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and the golf course where a tour event bears his name. ``It was a lot at the time, and it enabled me to buy the ranch, which was the dream of myself and Louise.''
Louise, Nelson's wife of more than 50 years, has had a series of physical setbacks and Byron now spends most of his time at her side.
``We didn't want to buy the ranch until we could pay for it,'' he says, ``and that gave me extra incentive to play well. Every time I won another $500, I'd think `That bought another acre' or `That bought another cow.' To perform well, everyone needs a goal like that.''
The game has never been played as well as Nelson played it four decades ago. From the second week in March to the first week in August, he never lost.
``I had this wonderful momentum going,'' he recalls, ``and I didn't feel much of anything. I was numb -- almost in a trance.''
The toughest part, the modest Nelson says, was having to talk about the streak all the time.
``We had to promote the tour in those days, going to a lot of civic club lunches and radio stations to drum up interest. After I won four in a row, I started to get big headlines in all the newspapers, and the pressure began to build.''
Finally one night during a tournament Byron told Louise, ``I wish I could just blow up and get it over with.''
He came back to the hotel after his round the next day, and Louise asked if he had blown up.
``Yeah,'' he said. ``I shot a 66.''
The streak nearly ended in Philadelphia after six straight victories. Nelson needed to birdie the last five holes to win. He did.
Nelson's scoring average in final rounds in 1945 was a stunning 67.68.
At last, at Memphis, Nelson failed to win a 12th tournament in succession. He tied for fourth, six strokes behind. The winner was not an old nemesis like Sam Snead or Ben Hogan but an amateur, Freddie Haas. The next week, in Knoxville, Nelson won by 10 strokes. He semi-retired the following year.
``He was a magnificent shotmaker,'' says Bob Toski, the great teacher. ``I once saw him hit 20 driver shots off the fairway with the same trajectory. That's unbelievable.''
Nelson is known as the father of the modern golf swing. He developed the firm, compact action that today's tour stars rely on almost to a man.
He is a highly respected teacher, who worked with Ken Venturi and more recently has been Tom Watson's mentor. ``Byron is a wonderful teacher,'' says Watson, ``and an even more wonderful person. He is humble and gentle and caring. It's entirely fitting that such unsurpassable records are held by such a fine gentleman.''