When Byron Nelson’s ball dropped into the cup on the 72nd hole of the 1945 Canadian Open, he set a new standard for golf and all sports. The four-stroke win was his 11th PGA Tour victory in a row, a record that has stood the test of time and has come to be recognized as one of the hardest to break in any sport. At the time, however, it changed the game in an even more important and fundamental way.
The start of 1945 brought a sense that World War II was winding down in Europe and, the hope was, soon after in the Pacific. The American public, long focused on the worries of war, began to think about the kind of leisurely diversions that had seemed superfluous. Thanks to Byron Nelson, golf was grabbing headlines both in and out of the sports pages.
When Nelson arrived at the Miami Four-Ball Championship in early March, he had already won three times on the season, but he was unhappy. The week before he’d played below his standards in Jacksonville, finishing sixth, while his rival of the day, Sam Snead, won his fourth straight event. Nelson planned to turn the tide, and he did.
In Miami, Nelson was teamed with his buddy Jug McSpaden, and the pair swept through four matches, including one against Ed Dudley and Ben Hogan, who was making a rare appearance on Tour while on leave from the Army Air Force.
The streak had begun. Over the next four weeks Nelson lost the partner but nothing else, racking up victories in the Charlotte Open (after a 36-hole playoff with Snead), Greensboro Open, Durham Open and Atlanta Open.
The Tour would go on a six-week hiatus, but Nelson had already captured the public’s imagination. After his win in Atlanta, Nelson got a call from General Mills; they would pay him $200 and a case of cereal each month if they could use his photo and stats on boxes of Wheaties. Nelson happily accepted. Cash was tight even though he’d led the money list in ’44 and was on pace to earn even more in ’45. Besides, Byron and his wife, Louise, were saving up for a ranch in Texas, where he could retire and get away from the pressure and constant travel of life on Tour.
The season resumed at the Montreal Open in early June and Nelson won by 10 shots. The following week, when Sam Snead had to pull out because he broke his wrist playing softball, Nelson won his seventh. But during his eighth win, at the Chicago Victory National, Nelson wrenched his back. He was unsure if he’d be able to finish, but he did, winning by a comfortable 13 shots.
Next up was the PGA Championship, which was not regarded as a major at the time, although it certainly was a big tournament (The Masters and the U.S. Open were cancelled during the war years). Nelson decided to give it a try. In the match play final, he took down Sam Byrd, 4 and 3. Afterward, he said his back had gotten so bad that he might have to visit the Mayo Clinic before the next event, the Tam O’Shanter Open, which he had won three times. But Nelson played through the pain, winning the Tam O’Shanter for No. 10 before going on to the Canadian Open and No. 11. After he finally lost, finishing fourth at the Memphis Open (won by amateur Fred Haas), Nelson said, “To tell the truth, I was greatly relieved. I was so tired.” Besides the sore back, the already whip-thin Nelson was 12 pounds below his normal weight.
Yes, the courses were more forgiving than typical pro layouts because they lacked the manpower and resources to keep them in tournament shape. Yes, many of the game’s top players were in the service. Still, it’s still tough to diminish Nelson’s achievement. He had a remarkable 18 victories that year, the last few after both Snead and Hogan returned to ring up late-season wins of their own. For the season, Nelson played 120 rounds and had a scoring average of 68.33 with a remarkable 67.68 average in final rounds. He had a record 19 straight rounds under 70 and won 16 stroke-play events by an average of 6.25 shots.
Nelson went on to win three of the first four events in 1946, took second in the U.S. Open after his caddie incurred a penalty by accidentally kicking his ball, and won three more tournaments to finish out the year.
Then Nelson bought that ranch he’d often talked about and disappeared from tournament golf. But at a critical time in the game’s history, he had been anything but invisible, and that made quite a difference in the history of the game.