Byron Nelson turned pro in 1932. He won 47 tournaments, including five majors.
By Jim Gorant
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

We've asked Jim Gorant and Gary Van Sickle to debate who was the greater golfer: Byron Nelson or Ben Hogan. After reading their arguments, tell us what you think in the comments section below.

I'm not here to knock Ben Hogan, because, after all, he's Ben Freakin' Hogan. But Nelson was better. Yes, Hogan's got better numbers. More wins. More majors. More books written about him (or so it seems). But where Hogan was the ultimate grinder, Nelson was a golf genius, an innovator, an artist. Mozart to Hogan's Salieri. Gayle Sayers to Hogan's Larry Csonka.

While Hogan was famously finding it in the dirt, silently bulldozing trenches across the Lone Star State in a sort of manic plow toward immortality, Nelson alighted on the scene with the grace and delicacy of a sparrow landing on a twig. Yes, he worked hard to come up with the upright, big-muscle action that would transition the game from the hickory shaft era to a new steel age, but he did it so much more gracefully and fought with it less over the years. It's the basis of the modern motion and the model for the swing machine known as Iron Byron, an ironic nod to one of the game's sweetest and least mechanical swings. With the exception of Chad Campbell, not many pros swing like Hogan anymore.

Then there's the streak, 11 in a row in 1945. That's not likely to be broken, ever. It's even more impressive when put into context of the entire season, when Nelson had 18 wins and seven seconds. The conventional wisdom is that many other top players were off fighting the war during Nelson's streak, but as Nelson pointed out in How I Played the Game, Hogan and most of the other top players participated in part if not all of the '45 season. Hogan won five times himself. The truth is that Nelson averaged 68.33 strokes per round and 67.45 in final rounds that year, which is tough for anyone to beat, Hogan included. In '46, when everyone was back, Nelson won seven more tournaments.

Yes, Byron left the scene early, retiring after the '46 season at 34, and if he played another 10 years he certainly would have won more, but he was a simple man who dreamed only of retiring to a ranch in Texas. Having earned enough to do just that, he gave up his sticks but remained dedicated to the game, mentoring young players like Ken Venturi and Tom Watson, and working as a TV announcer.

Outlasted? Nelson hosted the tournament with his name on it, personally sending out letters of invitation and greeting players as they came off the course, until his death at 94 last spring. Beat that.

Continue to find out why Gary Van Sickle thinks the Ben Hogan is the greater player.

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