Golfer Byron Nelson's Shining Record

Byron Nelson, a big winner in the lean early years of pro golf, has died at 94. Long after he retired, the gracious Texan remained one of the most popular figures in the sport. He won 18 tournaments in one year during World War II. Later, he raised at least $100 million for charity.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Byron Nelson, one of golf's legendary figures, died yesterday at the age of 94. In his years of competing Byron Nelson won 52 PGA Tour tournaments, including five major titles.

He will be best remembered, though, for his astounding streak of 11 straight tournament victories in 1945.

Commentator John Feinstein joins us now. Good morning, John.

Mr. JOHN FEINSTEIN (Author, Vanishing Act: A U.S. Open Mystery): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: John, please put that 11-tournament winning streak into perspective. Some say it's the greatest year in the history of golf.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: I think everyone agrees that 1945, when Nelson won the 11 straight and won 18 events in all - now think about that for a second, there are players in golf's Hall of Fame, Renee, who never won 18 tournaments in a career, and he won 18 in a year - would say that that record, the 11 straight, is right up there with Cy Young's 511 wins as a pitcher. No one came within 100 of that. Or Joe Dimaggio's 56-game hitting streak, or John Wooden winning ten college basketball titles when no other coach has won four. It's one of the great iconic records of all time.

Some people point out it was during World War II, the competition wasn't as great as it might have been, although Ben Hogan and Sam Snead both played that year. But the flipside of that is Nelson's stroke average that year was 68.3 strokes per round. No one has ever had a lower average in a year in the history of golf. And when you play against the golf course, no one knows whether there's a war going on or not.

MONTAGNE: And Byron Nelson was also one of the few athletes to retire while still very much on top. Why did he walk away when he did?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: His goal playing golf was to make enough money to buy a ranch. And in 1946, at the age of 34 he bought a 650-acre ranch in Texas, which is where he spent the rest of his life. He felt he didn't like traveling. He wanted to be with his family, he wanted to be a rancher, and he had done what he came to do in golf. He'd won five majors, as you mentioned. Probably would have won more if not for the fact that several were cancelled during World War II. And he was ready to go off into the sunset as a golfer at that point.

MONTAGNE: And as it turned out, his influence on the game went well past his playing years.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Oh, it absolutely did. He was one of the first great television announcers when he worked for ABC starting in the 1960s. He was the voice that weekend golfers learned the game from. He had his own tournament, the Byron Nelson Golf Classic, that all the great players took part in.

And maybe most importantly he was a mentor to many players, but notably Tom Watson, the great player himself who won eight major titles with Nelson as his mentor.

MONTAGNE: And I gather this story of how his relationship with Watson began is quite a sweet one.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Yeah. It was at Winged Foot in 1974, when Watson was 24 years old and he blew up in the last round of the Open while leading. He shot 79. Nelson was doing the TV commentary. He came into the locker room, found Watson, and said, young man, I think you have a great future in the game. I'd like to help you if I can. It was like the Lifesavers commercial before the Lifesavers commercial, Renee. And it was the start of a friendship that lasted until yesterday.

MONTAGNE: John, what's your best memory of Byron Nelson?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: You know, Renee, I was fortunate to know him for almost 25 years. I first met him when I did a profile of Tom Watson in 1982. But I think my most vivid memory is very recent. Because every year at the Masters, on Thursday Mr. Nelson would sit on the first tee and greet all the players as they came out there to tee off. And last year Tiger Woods walked right over to him, shook his hand and said, Mr. Nelson, the Masters wouldn't feel like the Masters without you.

And when I heard the news yesterday, I couldn't help but think next April in Augusta not only will his presence be felt by everyone but his absence will be felt by everyone.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The comments of John Feinstein, whose latest book is Vanishing Act: A U.S. Open Mystery.

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