How Byron Nelson developed the modern golf swing
May 04, 2020
By Sean Martin , PGATOUR.COM
Essential Byron Nelson
When Byron Nelson was a boy, he made the three-mile trip to school by riding bareback on a coal-black horse. That mode of transportation was eventually replaced by the automobile, which allowed Nelson to travel the country and dominate the PGA TOUR in a way that has never been matched.
Another technological advancement may have played an even larger role in his historic career: the steel shaft.
Nelson was nicknamed “The Father of the Modern Golf Swing” because of his trailblazing role in the transition from hickory shafts. On the 75th anniversary of his record-setting 1945 season – when he won 18 times, including 11 in a row – and on a week in which the AT&T Byron Nelson was originally scheduled prior to its cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic, PGATOUR.COM is running a series of articles analyzing Nelson’s outsized impact on the game. This story looks at his role in developing modern swing mechanics.
The swings of his contemporaries, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, may receive more plaudits from today’s players and instructors, but there’s a reason the club-testing robot is named "Iron Byron." The swing that Nelson built to suit the new shafts gave him incredible accuracy.
THE IMPACT OF BYRON NELSON
During what would’ve been AT&T Byron Nelson week, PGATOUR.COM will celebrate the tournament’s legendary namesake with a series of stories, including his impact on the modern golf swing; his impact on those who met him; his charitable impact in conjunction with the Salesmanship Club; and his impact on the PGA TOUR’s record book, due in large part to his incredible 1945 season. Check back each day this week for a new story.
Hickory shafts twisted and torqued throughout the swing, requiring a handsy swing with lots of clubface rotation. That’s how Nelson swung when he started playing golf, but he transformed his action to suit the new technology. Through years of trial and error, he developed a steeper swing that utilized his lower body to keep the clubface stable through impact.
“Back in the ‘30s, a lot of us who tried to teach people to play golf became fascinated with Byron’s golf swing,” wrote instructor Harvey Penick, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. “Steel shafts had just replaced hickory, and Byron seemed to have found the way to get the most out of the new clubs.”
Arnold Palmer called Nelson the best shotmaker he ever saw. Jack Nicklaus wrote in his memoir that a clinic Nelson gave at the 1954 U.S. Junior Amateur was "the finest exhibition of golfing accuracy I've ever witnessed."
Nelson hit only about a dozen balls before his rounds and didn’t practice after them. His swing had become second nature, so he didn’t see the point in beating balls.
“The mechanics of my swing were such that it required no thought. It’s like eating. You don’t think to feed yourself,” he said.
He once wrote that he was trying to hole every shot with a 7-iron or less. His ball-striking became the stuff of legend.
He hit the flagstick six times with six different clubs in his win at the 1939 U.S. Open, including a holed 1-iron in his playoff with Craig Wood (the same man who was runner-up to Gene Sarazen’s albatross in the 1935 Masters). Nelson can’t remember missing a fairway when he set a PGA TOUR record with a 72-hole score of 259 at the 1945 Seattle Open, which he won by 13.
“The record of his deeds remains heroic, but his story has never taken on the proportions of a proper legend,” reads a 1979 Sports Illustrated profile. “The trouble is that Nelson made it all seem so sinfully easy.”
Snead was a long-hitting showman from the hills of West Virginia. Hogan had his mystique and head-on collision with a bus. Nelson, on the other hand, was the soft-spoken Christian who dominated during the war years and retired early. That isn’t exactly fodder for folklore.
Nelson mentored several successful players, including Tom Watson and Ken Venturi, but the moves of Snead and Hogan are now held as the gold standard of golf swings. Nelson’s idiosyncratic “dip” through the golf ball is one reason. His swing may not be as aesthetically pleasing as his contemporaries’, but it was renowned for its simplicity. No one kept the club traveling down the target line longer.
“He could shoot just about any score he wanted,” Watson said. “When he went to play exhibitions, he asked what was the course record. If the club professional held it, he would not break it out of respect for the club professional.
“They did a slow-motion video of the swings of Hogan, Nelson and Snead. They determined that Byron’s clubface was square to the ball for 11 inches through the impact area. Hogan’s was nine inches and Snead’s was seven inches.”
In 1944, it was no one less than Bobby Jones who said, “It’s Nelson they all must watch and fear.” Nelson was the Associated Press’ Athlete of the Year in both 1944 and 1945, winning 26 of his 50 starts in those seasons. Nelson’s 68.3 scoring average in 1945 was the lowest on TOUR until Tiger Woods surpassed it in 2000.
Jones said Hogan was the hardest worker he’d seen in any sport. Snead was a “stylist,” someone who exerted the least amount of effort while racking up incredible results. But it was Nelson, Jones said, who had “that rarest of all qualities: consistency.”
“Byron rarely has a bad day or a bad round. He has more finesse than any of the others,” Jones said.
It wasn’t always that way.
Early in his career, Nelson was tormented by the wild swings in scoring from day to day that frustrate so many players.
“I’d play a 67 or 68, and all of a sudden I’d shoot 75 or 76 or 77,” he wrote in his instruction book, “Shape Your Swing the Modern Way.” Nelson, who, like Snead and Hogan, was born in 1912, got his first set of steel-shafted irons around 1930. He fought a hook with the new clubs, and quickly realized his old “caddie swing” was the culprit.
“The hickory shafts I used then in my iron clubs had a lot of torque, or twist, in them, so you had to roll the clubface open on the backswing, then roll it closed coming through. If you didn’t, the force of your swing would leave the face open when you struck the ball.” he wrote. “The swing was loose and flat. ‘Turn in a barrel’ we called it. … The feet were kept pretty flat, and coming through we would hit against a straight left leg and side, kind of throwing the clubface into the ball to get it square again.”
He embarked on a years-long quest of trial-and-error to find a swing that was suited for steel. It paid off with his first big win, a three-stroke victory over a strong field at the 1936 Metropolitan Open. Snead was just emerging from the hills of Virginia, where he was “so poor that money thought I was dead,” he once wrote. Hogan was fighting a hook and still trying to find his footing in the pro game. His swing required its own overhaul.
“I think I was the first player to make the complete change from the old way of swinging to the modern method we use today,” Nelson wrote. “Most people, I guess, like to copy somebody who is successful, and after a while I began to have pretty good success with that swing.”
Older players were loath to make a change, but he saw younger players emulating his new move.
It started with a slight lateral motion to his right side. This “one-piece takeaway” – where the hands, arms and shoulders move back together -- allowed the club to travel straight back and stay low to the ground instead of fanning open.
This led to a “steeper” backswing with his hands much higher at the top. Then he realized that driving his legs on the downswing allowed him to keep the club traveling down the target line as long as possible with minimal face rotation. Practicing in his native Texas helped him groove this new method.
“Keeping the ball down against the wind helped me learn to take the club straight back and straight through. I also think my pronounced leg drive developed from trying to keep the ball low against the wind,” he wrote. “I was trying to swing through the ball with as shallow an arc as possible at the bottom and keep the club going down the target line as long as I could. You need strong leg action to do that.”
Marilynn Smith, the World Golf Hall of Famer, marveled at his swing’s long “flat spot” at the bottom of the arc. Venturi said, “He kept the club on the ball longer than anyone else in history because he kept the club on line longer than anyone else.”
Nelson also believed in a firm grip to keep the clubface stable through impact. It allowed him to keep a firm grasp on the PGA TOUR record book, setting records that will likely never be broken.