Museum Moment: Byron Nelson’s 11-Tournament Win Streak

Mar 10, 2011

By Robert Alvarez

There has always been debate as to what is the most impressive sports streak or record of all time. Some contend that the honor belongs to Cal Ripken, who on Sept. 6, 1995, broke the record previously held by Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse,” for the most consecutive games started by a Major League Baseball player, and just kept playing: 2,632 games to be exact. Others say Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak during the 1941 season will never be surpassed.

Another very strong candidate for this unofficial honor is Byron Nelson’s incredible 1945 season. He won 18 of the 30 tournaments he entered, including an incredible 11 wins in a row, finished second in seven other tournaments, and won the PGA Championship.

On March 11, 1945, Nelson won the Miami Four-Ball with Harold McSpaden, then went on to win the Charlotte Open, Greensboro Open, Durham Open, Atlanta Open, Montreal Open, The Philadelphia Inquirer Invitational, the Chicago Victory National Open, the PGA Championship, the Tam O’Shanter Open, and finally, the Canadian Open. He earned slightly less than $35,000 in prize money over the course of the winning streak.

A very strong case can be made for Nelson’s 1945 season as being the greatest season the game has ever seen, with perhaps its only rivals being Bob Jones’ 1930 Grand Slam and Tiger Woods’ 2000 season, in which he won nine events, including three major championships.

Nelson’s remarkable consistency led many to compare his swing to that of a machine. His obituary in The New York Times said, “Nelson possessed exquisite form, his aggressive lower-body action and ‘square’ club position becoming the model for the modern golf swing.” Many years after he retired, the USGA developed a robot to test golf balls and clubs; it was dubbed “Iron Byron.”

Like many players of the World War II era, Nelson came from humble beginnings. Born Feb. 4, 1912, in Waxahachie, Texas, the son of a cotton farmer, Nelson learned the game while working as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. In 1927 he won the club’s caddie championship in a playoff over fellow Texan Ben Hogan. Nelson turned pro in 1932 and served as a club professional in Texarkana, Texas; Reading, Pa.; Ridgewood, N.J.; and at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, before devoting more significant time to the professional circuit.

In the March 1970 issue of Golf Digest Nelson gave an interview providing insight into his 11-tournament win streak. When asked how it felt to win 11 in a row, Nelson replied, “At the time I can’t remember feeling much of anything – I was close to being numb. I had this wonderful momentum going and I didn’t seem to have to worry about anything or think about anything – everything I hit went pretty much where I wanted it to go. I was almost in a trance. I don’t know whether the moon got in a certain phase and just hung there or what. I’m inclined to think it was something like that, I really am. I believe we’re all affected by conditions we can’t understand, and that the laws of chance can lead to some strange things. I’m not superstitious, but it’s always struck me funny that you can go for weeks and never see a traffic accident, and then you’ll see three in one day. How do you account for that? I don’t pretend to know.”

Nelson’s streak was not immune to criticism. He accomplished the feat during World War II, when many other top players were in the service (Nelson was exempt from service due to a blood disorder). Nelson defended his record, saying that Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, among others, competed in the tournaments he won. In fact, Snead won six events in 1945, and Hogan won five.

In 1946, at 34 years old, after having won more than 50 tournaments, including five major championships, Nelson purchased a plot of land near Dallas which he later named “Fairway Ranch,” and lived there for the rest of his life. Nelson needed $55,000 to purchase ranchland, something he had long coveted. In his memoir “How I Played the Game,” he recalled: “Each drive, each iron, each chip, each putt was aimed at the goal of getting that ranch. And each win meant another cow, another acre, another 10 acres, another part of the down payment.”

“Lord Byron” as he became known, played sparingly in the 1950s, winning the 1951 Crosby Pro-Am and the 1955 French Open. In retirement he enjoyed mentoring younger players such as Ken Venturi and Tom Watson, making occasional appearances as a television commentator, and hitting honorary tee shots at the Masters Tournament.

Many of the game’s greatest champions appreciate Nelson’s amazing 1945 season. When asked about Nelson, Arnold Palmer said, “I don’t think anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year.” Tiger Woods, who has set numerous records of his own, once said, “What Byron accomplished, that goes down as one of the great years in our sport.”

Among his five major championship victories is the 1939 U.S. Open at Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne, Pa. The USGA Museum is proud to display the 1-iron Nelson used to eagle the fourth hole of a second 18-hole playoff, which propelled him to the championship over Craig Wood. Also in the collection is a box of “Slip Stream” golf balls produced by the Northwestern Golf Company endorsed by Nelson, and a large portrait of Lord Byron by noted artist Everett Raymond Kinstler.

In October of 2006, less than one month after Nelson’s death, President George W. Bush approved a House resolution honoring Nelson with the Congressional Gold Medal for his many contributions to the game.

Robert Alvarez is the collections manager of the USGA Museum. E-mail questions or comments to RAlvarez@usga.org.

A box of “Slip Stream” golf balls produced by the Northwestern Golf Company endorsed by Byron Nelson is part of the USGA Museum's collection. (USGA Museum)