Byron Nelson: Profile of the Golf Legend

Byron Nelson at the 1937 Ryder Cup
Byron Nelson tees off during the 1937 Ryder Cup. Fox Photos/Getty Images

Byron Nelson was one of the best golfers of the 1930s and 1940s who retired early, but remained involved with golf into the 21st Century through the PGA Tour tournament named after him. He is often called the first golfer with a modern swing, and is generally considered among the greatest golfers of all-time.

Fast Facts: Byron Nelson

  • Occupation: Professional golfer
  • Nickname: Lord Byron
  • Born: February 4, 1912 in Waxahachie, Texas
  • Died: September 26, 2006 in Roanoke, Texas
  • Published Works: Byron Nelson's Winning Golf (1946), How I Played the Game: An Autobiography (1993)
  • Key Accomplishments: Winner of 52 PGA Tour tournaments, including The Masters twice, PGA Championship twice and U.S. Open once.
  • Fun Fact: In 1927, as 15-year-olds, Nelson defeated Ben Hogan for the caddie championship of Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth.

Number of Wins By Nelson

Nelson won 52 times in golf tournaments that are counted today as official PGA Tour events. That puts Nelson in sixth place on the all-time PGA Tour career wins list. Nelson is one of only seven golfers who've won 50 or more PGA Tour tournaments.

Of those wins, five were in major championships. Nelson won The Masters in 1937 and 1942, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945.

Awards and Honors for Nelson

  • Member, World Golf Hall of Fame
  • Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, 1944 and 1945
  • PGA Tour Vardon Trophy winner, 1939
  • PGA Tour leading money winner, 1944, 1945
  • Member, U.S. Ryder Cup team, 1937, 1947
  • Captain, U.S. Ryder Cup team, 1965

A Brief Biography of Byron Nelson

Starting in 1942 and ending in 1946, Byron Nelson finished in the Top 10 in 65 consecutive tournaments. Over that full time period, Nelson finished out of the Top 10 only once, winning 34 times and finishing second 16 more times.

Nelson's 1945 season is considered by most the best ever by a male golfer. He won 18 times, including 11 tournaments in a row (see complete record here). He did it with a 68.33 stroke average that was not bested for another 55 years.

Nelson was born John Byron Nelson Jr. south of Fort Worth, where he and Ben Hogan became acquainted as children when both caddied at Glen Garden Country Club. The two squared off for the club's caddie championship in 1927, with Nelson winning.

Nelson turned pro in 1932 and his swing is considered by many golf historians the first "modern" swing (it served as the model for the mechanical testing robot that came to be known as "Iron Byron").

The World Golf Hall of Fame explains:

"Coming of age just as the steel shaft was replacing hickory, Nelson learned that using the big muscles in the hips and legs could be a more reliable, powerful, and effective way to hit a golf ball than the more wristy method that had been employed in the era of hickory. Nelson was particularly noteworthy for the way his swing was more upright and along the target line, employing a full shoulder turn with restricted wrist cock, and for the way he kept his knees flexed in the downswing."

Nelson's first major championship victory was the 1937 Masters; he won the Masters again in 1942 by beating Hogan in an 18-hole playoff. Following his amazing 1945 season, Nelson won six more times in 1946 and then, at the age of 34, retired from full-time competitive golf to buy a ranch in Texas. He played tournament golf only sparingly afterward.

After his playing days ended, Nelson did some television commentary and also hosted the Byron Nelson Championship on the PGA Tour each year.

As an elder statesman of the game, Nelson mentored many young golfers, among them Ken Venturi and Tom Watson. He was one of the honorary starters at The Masters for many years, and also served as host of the Masters' Champions Dinner.

Byron Nelson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 as part of the inaugural class.

Quote, Unquote

First, a couple quotes by others about Nelson:

  • Ken Venturi: "You can always argue who was the greatest player, but Byron is the finest gentleman the game has ever known."
  • Arnold Palmer: "Byron Nelson accomplished things on the pro tour that never have been and never will be approached again."

These are quotes from Nelson himself:

  • "Every great player has learned the two Cs: how to concentrate and how to maintain composure."
  • "Putting affects the nerves more than anything. I would actually get nauseated over three-footers."
  • "The toughest thing I've ever had to do in golf is hit the ball off that first tee with thousands of people watching and having no idea where the ball was going."
  • "The first step in building a solid, dependable attitude is to be realistic, not only about your inherent capabilities, but also about how well you are playing to those capabilities on any given day."
  • "The only shot you can be sure of are those you've had already."
  • "I'm more proud of my reputation than the fact that I won a lot of tournaments."

Byron Nelson's PGA Tour Wins

Nelson is credited with 52 wins on the PGA Tour. This is the list of those wins:

  • 1935 New Jersey State Open
  • 1936 Metropolitan Open
  • 1937 The Masters
  • 1937 Belmont Country Club Match Play
  • 1938 Thomasville Open
  • 1938 Hollywood Open
  • 1939 Phoenix Open
  • 1939 North and South Open
  • 1939 U.S. Open
  • 1939 Western Open
  • 1940 Texas Open
  • 1940 Miami Open
  • 1940 PGA Championship
  • 1941 Greater Greensboro Open
  • 1941 Tam O'Shanter Open
  • 1941 Miami Open
  • 1942 Oakland Open
  • 1942 Masters
  • 1942 Tam O'Shanter Open
  • 1944 San Francisco Victory Open
  • 1944 Knoxville War Bond Tournament
  • 1944 New York Red Cross Tourney
  • 1944 Minneapolis Four-Ball (partnered Jug McSpaden in team format)
  • 1944 Tam O'Shanter Open
  • 1944 Nashville Open
  • 1944 Texas Victory Open
  • 1944 San Francisco Open
  • 1945 Phoenix Open
  • 1945 Corpus Christi Open
  • 1945 New Orleans Open
  • 1945 Miami International Four-Ball (partnered Jug McSpaden in team format)
  • 1945 Charlotte Open
  • 1945 Greater Greensboro Open
  • 1945 Durham Open
  • 1945 Atlanta Open
  • 1945 Montreal Open
  • 1945 Philadelphia Inquirer
  • 1945 Chicago Victory National Open
  • 1945 PGA Championship
  • 1945 Tam O'Shanter Open
  • 1945 Canadian Open
  • 1945 Knoxville Invitational
  • 1945 Esmeralda Open
  • 1945 Seattle Open
  • 1945 Glen Garden Open
  • 1946 Los Angeles Open
  • 1946 San Francisco Open
  • 1946 New Orleans Open
  • 1946 Houston Open
  • 1946 Columbus Invitational
  • 1946 Chicago Victory National Open
  • 1951 Bing Crosby Professional-Amateur

Nelson also won tournaments that are not, today, counted as PGA Tour wins, plus one tournament — the 1955 French Open — on the loosely organized pro circuit that existed in Europe prior to the establishment of the European Tour. Among his other wins were the Ohio Open in 1940, 1941 and 1942, the Massachusetts Open in 1939, Kentucky Open in 1943, New York Open in 1944 and Texas PGA Championship in 1948.