11 things you should know about 11 straight winsA deep dive into Byron Nelson's record-setting stretch 75 years ago
May 08, 2020
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
The Legend of Byron Nelson
This week, the AT&T Byron Nelson was planning to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Nelson’s record-setting 1945 season – the most successful one (provided that your definition of success involves winning, of course) in the history of the PGA TOUR.
While this year’s tournament itself was canceled, we can still do a deep-dive into 1945, specifically Nelson’s 11 consecutive wins from mid-March to mid-August. Here’s 11 things you should know about the streak.
THE IMPACT OF BYRON NELSON
During what would’ve been AT&T Byron Nelson week, PGATOUR.COM is celebrating the tournament’s legendary namesake and his impact on golf with a series of stories, including:
• His impact on my life and career, by Tom Watson
• His impact on the modern golf swing
• His impact on winners of his event
• His impact on charity with the Salesmanship Club
1. TIE FOR 6TH
The last tournament Nelson played before starting his streak was the Jacksonville Open in Florida. He was just two strokes off the lead through 36 holes at Hyde Park, but a third-round even-par 72 left him six shots off the pace and he couldn’t make up the ground, eventually finishing nine back of Sam Snead.
Third-round "struggles" would become one of the few negatives for Nelson in 1945; his third-round average of 69.21 was his highest across all rounds. And his T-6 finish was his worst finish until a ninth at Tacoma late in the year. “That must have gotten me a little steamed up, because it was the next week that I got started on what everyone today calls my streak,” Nelson wrote in his autobiography, "How I Played the Game."
As for the Jacksonville Open – well, it was the first significant TOUR event to be played in the city, and other than a 12-year stretch starting in the mid-1950s, it remained on the calendar through 1976. A year later, THE PLAYERS Championship was moved to nearby Ponte Vedra Beach to become the area’s signature tournament.
2. 1,016 HOLES
Of Nelson's 11 straight wins, three required a substantial increase than the 72 holes normally needed for stroke play events. In the first win in Miami, Nelson and partner Jug McSpaden played 128 holes in the match play format. The next week in the Charlotte Open, Nelson needed two extra 18-hole playoffs to subdue Sam Snead for a total of 108 holes. And at the PGA Championship, with its combination of stroke-play qualifying and match play for the tournament, Nelson played 204 holes (and was 37 under for the week).
His total of 1,016 tournament holes during the win streak (more than 56 rounds) doesn’t include the nine he played at the Tam O’Shanter before the third round was canceled due to rain, as he and others had to start over the next day. And, of course, it also doesn’t include all the exhibitions he played between tournaments, as he played …
3. FEW PRACTICE ROUNDS
When Nelson won his fifth consecutive event to establish a new record, he realized the expectation level and pressure to keep winning was going to be an issue. So … “one way I dealt with the pressure was to simply not play practice rounds, which kept me away from the press and the fans to some extent,” Nelson wrote. “That sounds foolish, but many times I played my best golf when I hadn’t even seen the course, just went and played.” He leaned on his ability to judge distances, as well as any prior experience on the courses.
4. PRIMARY MOTIVATIONNelson wanted a ranch in his native Texas. And he wanted to pay cash. He and his first wife Louise grew up during the Great Depression, so they vowed not to borrow or have a mortgage. So Nelson needed to make money. Everything he did had that in mind.
“Each drive, each iron, each chip, each putt was aimed at the goal of getting ranch,” he wrote. “And each win meant another cow, another acre …”
Officially, he won $34,947.33 during his 11-win streak, but that’s not the true amount. Since several of the tournaments paid in war bonds instead of cash in order to help out the war effort, the actual total was much less. Nelson wasn’t interested in holding onto the bonds for a decade or so until they matured, so he cashed them in immediately at approximately 75% face value. While the TOUR has his winnings at $59,612 for the season, Nelson estimated his take-home was actually $47,600. Fortunately …
5. SIDE INCOME
Nelson played exhibitions while driving from town to town during the streak, usually pocketing between $200-$300. Not only did he make money towards his ranch purchase, but it allowed him to stay sharp in lieu of not playing practice rounds (and it was proved effective in maintaining his form despite a two-month break in the TOUR schedule in the middle of his streak).
Other sources of revenue also followed. He signed an endorsement deal for Wheaties cereal that paid him $200. He played the PGA Championship qualifier, even though he didn’t need to, simply for the medalist prize (he was co-medalist and received $125). He won an $100 bet versus tournament promoter George May at the Tam O’Shanter. He won $100 at a long driving contest in Chicago.
After his 11th win but before his next start, he won $1,500 at the Spring Lake Invitational Pro-Member in New Jersey – and made significantly more in the Calcutta Pool team auction. In fact, the course’s web site said the owner of the winning team received $19,000. Nelson himself hinted that his takeaway that week was more than the $13,6000 prize money he received for winning the Tam O’Shanter. As Nelson once said, “I’ve got to get it now.”Byron Nelson rewrote the record books during his storied career. (Hulton Archive)
6. SO MANY RECORDS
Let’s go beyond the two most celebrated records of the year – the 18 wins and 11 straight. Those are just incredible by-products of Nelson’s more narrow-focused chase of records on a daily or weekly basis. As his good friend Tom Watson recently mentioned, Nelson would arrive at exhibitions wanting to know who holds the course record. “If it was the club professional there, he would not break it out of respect for the club professional,” Watson said. “But he was that good where he could shoot just about any score he wanted.”
Certainly at TOUR events, Nelson saw the green light to chase all course and tournament records. As he said in his biography about 1945, “I had one other incentive. I wanted to establish some records that would stand for a long time.” He cited lowest scoring average for a season and lowest score for an entire tournament as two of those. He achieved both, but among the others:
• His 271 total to win the Greater Greensboro Open was a tournament record for four rounds at Starmount
• Final-round 65 set the course record at Hope Valley to win the Durham Open
• Opening 64 at Capital City in Atlanta set a course record (he was the only player in the field to shoot under par that day). “I know I never played better,” he said afterward.
• His 263 total to win the Atlanta Open set a new PGA TOUR mark, bettering Craig Wood’s 264 in 1940 at the Metropolitan Open
• His opening 63 at Islesmere set the course record en route to winning the Montreal Open
• His closing 63 set the course record at Llanerch and his 269 total set the tournament record at the Philadelphia Inquirer Open
• His 269 set the tournament record at the Tam O’Shanter Open, as he bettered his own previous record by nine shots. “One of my best tournaments that whole year – including my 259 at Seattle,” Nelson wrote in his biography.
7. POOR JUG
While the streak started with a team win in Miami for Harold “Jug” McSpaden, the career ledger of the “other” Gold Dust Twin probably suffered more than any other player due to Nelson’s streak. The Kansas-born McSpaden was runner-up 13 times in 1945, a record that still stands. Seven of those second-places finishes were to Nelson, including three times during the streak.
One of those was the Philadelphia Inquirer Open. McSpaden lived in the Philly area, and Byron and Louise Nelson stayed at his house that week. McSpaden tied the course record with a second-round 66 and was a co-leader entering the final round, Nelson one stroke behind. But Nelson, again showing his unmatched closing power, shot 63 in the final round, making five birdies in his last six holes to keep his win streak alive. Muttered McSpaden to Nelson, “You not only beat my brains out, but you eat all my food, too.”
But McSpaden – who finished in the top 10 an amazing 31 times in 1945 – never let the results impact his friendship with Nelson; he named his son Jay Byron Nelson McSpaden. “They don’t come any better than Byron,” McSpaden once said about his friend.
When McSpaden passed away in 2004, Nelson told the Associated Press: “I feel like I’ve lost a wonderful friend” and added that the last time they spoke, McSpaden playfully told him, “If you wouldn’t have been born, I’d have been known as a pretty good player.”
Referring to Nelson in ways other than simply using his name became a game of can-you-top-this among golf writers in 1945. A few of their nicknames for Nelson:
“The Mechanical Man”
“Toledo Typhoon” (he once was head pro at Inverness)
“Umbrella Contact Man” (he was an honorary vice-president at Haas-Jordan Umbrellas)
“Gold Dust Twins” (his partnership with Jug McSpaden to win the Miami Four Ball)
“Man O’ War of Golf” (after arguably the greatest race horse of the 20th century)
And finally, just “Mr. Golf,” to which his fellow Texan and rival Ben Hogan said after seeing Nelson romp to victory at the Tam O’Shanter, “I’ve had just about enough of all this Mr. Golf business.”
9. BYRON PROOFING
Nelson’s dominance was such that tournament officials at the 1945 Canadian Open may have lengthened some of the holes at Thornhill to slow him down.
“According to an article written before the tournament,” Nelson wrote in his biography, “those [first] seven holes were lengthened specifically because of me – and some of the other fine players, I’m sure.” For instance, the par-3 fifth went from 185 to 235 yards, and the par-3 seventh went from 155 to 215 yards. Meanwhile, on the back nine, the 17th was reduced from 296 yards to 259 yards – and became a par 3 instead of a par 4, as the course’s par was changed from its usual 71 to 70.
Of course, it didn’t matter. Nelson won by four shots for the 11th and final win of his consecutive streak.
10. LOSING ... TO AN AMATEUR
Fred Haas was a 29-year-old insurance salesman out of New Orleans and had yet to turn pro when he won the 1945 Memphis Invitational at Chickasaw – the first time in 12 TOUR events that Nelson did not win. It was also the first time in nine years that an amateur had won on TOUR; ironically, two more amateurs (Cary Middlecoff, Frank Stranahan) would win events later that year.
As for Nelson? He finished T-4 that week, the ever-increasing mental fatigue finally affecting his concentration. The streak had ended but for the first time in quite a while, Nelson said he “slept good that night.”
11. THE WHAT-IFS
Hard to imagine that Nelson’s dominance in 1945, particularly during his 11-win streak, could have been any more impressive. But consider this:
• Only one major was played that year, the match-play PGA Championship. The other three were canceled due to World War II. It’s doubtful Nelson would’ve made the trip to Great Britain for the Open (he played it just twice, in 1937 and 1955), but he certainly would’ve been the favorite at the Masters and U.S. Open, both of which would’ve been played during his win streak.
• There was a two-month break in the PGA TOUR schedule after the Winter Tour, and it came five wins into Nelson’s 11-win streak. Imagine if the schedule had kept going and Nelson stayed in form. Could the win streak have actually been closer to 15? 20? Of course, those two months also allowed Nelson to recharge, so perhaps it's a wash.
• What if Nelson had not injured his back while winning the long drive contest in Chicago? A few weeks later, after winning the PGA, Nelson went to a Mayo Clinic for an examination that took three days of testing. The diagnosis was “muscular tension” so he kept playing – and kept winning. It didn’t seem to affect his performance, but maybe it played a small part in breaking the streak. But a bigger factor might’ve been …
• A bad bounce off the flagstick in the final round in Memphis. Paired with leader Haas, Nelson was putting on his usual Sunday charge, and was only two shots back going to the par-3 sixth. But a 7-iron hit the flagstick and bounded off the green. Haas followed with a tee shot to 6 feet. He birdied, Nelson bogeyed and that was it. “The whole thing could’ve turned around right there,” Haas admitted in the book, “Byron Nelson.” Nelson, realizing he had benefited with some good bounces during his streak, took it in stride. “You just have to take the good with the bad and you don’t get upset about them,” he said.
• Of course, the biggest what-if about 1945 always will concern the absence of other great players due to war commitments. It’s sometimes overlooked that the other two members of the American Triumvirate did play a healthy amount that year – Sam Snead made 26 starts and Ben Hogan made 18 after his discharge from the Army. Yes, Jimmy Demaret made just six starts while serving in the Navy, and fellow Texan Ralph Guldahl made just one start, having decided to retire. But McSpaden, a 17-time TOUR winner, was a worthy competitor. Dutch Harrison, also a 17-time winner, made 14 starts. The bottom line is Nelson can only beat those who play against him. And as he summed up, “I think that 68.3 speaks for itself.” It took 55 years for a TOUR pro to post a better single-season scoring average – Tiger Woods with 68.17 in 2000.