IRVING, Texas – Byron Nelson, golf's courtly "Lord Byron" whose 11 straight tournament victories in 1945 stand as one of sports' most enduring records, died Tuesday. He was 94.
His wife, Peggy Nelson, told family friend Angela Enright that her husband appeared fine as she left their Roanoke home for Bible study Tuesday morning.
"I'm so proud of you," he told her, something he often said about her church involvement, Enright said. When she returned, she found her husband on the back porch, which faces the woodworking shop where he spent much of his free time.
The Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office said he died of natural causes.
"We have lost a giant in the game ... someone who elevated the game in every way: as a player, an ambassador and a gentleman," said Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and winner of Nelson's tournament in 1983. "Whoever came up with `Lord Byron,' they got it exactly right."
Known for his graceful swing and gentle manner, Nelson had the greatest year in the history of professional golf in 1945 when he won 18 tournaments, including the streak of 11 that no one has come close to duplicating. He captured 31 of 54 tournaments in 1944-45, and won a total of 52 events, including five majors: the Masters in 1937 and '42, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and '45.
Then, at age 34, he retired after the 1946 season to spend more time on his Texas ranch.
"When I was playing regularly, I had a goal," Nelson recalled years later. "I could see the prize money going into the ranch, buying a tractor, or a cow. It gave me incentive."
Nelson's long, fluid swing is considered the model of the modern way to strike a golf ball and his kind, caring style with fans and competitors made him one of the most well-liked people in sports. In 1968, he was the first player to have a PGA Tour event named for him, an honor that remains his alone.
Nelson was an active host for his event, recruiting players through genuine friendships with them and their admiration for him. That connection helped make his event a popular stop and the No. 1 fundraiser for charity on the PGA Tour — more than $94 million since the tournament's inception, including $6.3 million this year. The U.S. House recently voted to award Nelson a Congressional Gold Medal for philanthropy; the legislation, Congress' highest award, is pending in the Senate.
"Our players, young and old, looked to Byron as the consummate role model of our sport," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. "His legacy spans across his historic performances, the gentle and dignified way he carried himself and his tremendous contributions to golf and society."
Nelson held the PGA Tour records for most consecutive made cuts (113) and for single-season scoring average (68.33) until both were broken by Tiger Woods.
The closest any player has come to Nelson's streak of 11 tournament victories is six, first by Ben Hogan in 1948. When Woods reached that number in 1999-2000, Nelson was typically gracious when putting his own mark into perspective.
"Anytime you make a record stand for 55 years, why, you've done pretty good," he told The Associated Press.
Last month, when Woods' current streak of PGA tour wins reached five and counting, he didn't sound confident that Nelson's feat would fall anytime soon, comparing it to Joe DiMaggio's elusive 56-game hitting streak.
"In this day and age, with this competition, to win 11 in a row would be almost unheard of," Woods said. "What Byron accomplished, that goes down as one of the great years in the history of our sport. ... DiMaggio's record, I see that being broken more than winning 11 in a row."
Arnold Palmer called Nelson "one of the greatest players who ever lived."
"I don't think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year," Palmer said in a statement. "But I suppose that is not the most admirable thing that he did, although it was certainly tremendous. He was a fantastic person whom I admired from the time I was a boy."
Nelson's mark on the Masters was honored in 1958 when the path that takes golfers over Rae's Creek to the 13th tee was named Nelson Bridge, commemorating his final-day charge over the 12th and 13th holes that sent him to victory in 1937. He later was the annual honorary starter, along with Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. Nelson made his final ceremonial shot in 2001.
"Today we have lost a truly wonderful gentleman," said Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters. "Byron has meant so much to so many people, and has been an integral and important part of this tournament since he first played here in 1935."
John Byron Nelson was born Feb. 4, 1912, on the family farm in Waxahachie, Texas, and started in golf in 1922 as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. One year, he won the caddies' championship, defeating Hogan in a playoff.
It was the beginning of a rivalry that never really materialized. Though they were born six months apart, Nelson won all five of his major championships before he was 34 and Hogan won all nine of his after he was 34.
After graduating from high school, Nelson got a job as a file clerk in the accounting office of the Forth Worth and Denver Railroad and played golf in his spare time. He lost his job during the Great Depression but found work in 1931 with a bankers' magazine.
The same year, he entered his first tournament, the National Amateur in Chicago, where he missed qualifying by one stroke. With jobs hard to find, he turned professional in 1932.
Nelson was excused from military service during World War II because he was a hemophiliac. With many foes in the service, he faced weakened fields — still, his accomplishments in the war years were astounding.
In 1944, he won 13 of the 23 tournaments he played. But it was the following year — with 18 wins, including 11 straight — that will forever live as one of the greatest in golf history. He also finished second seven times, was never out of the top 10 and at one point played 19 consecutive rounds under 70.
"The Streak" is honored in a series of displays at the course where his tournament is held. It includes this quote from Nelson: "The streak was something I never thought could happen. I look back on it now and if I didn't see so many facts and figures, I'd almost think it was a good, long dream."
Nelson was voted AP Male Athlete of the Year in 1944 and 1945. He was elected to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953 and to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. He's now sixth on the all-time win list, behind Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Hogan, Palmer and Woods.
Although Nelson continued to play in an occasional tournament after 1946, he retreated to his 673-acre ranch in Roanoke, Texas, and never returned to competitive golf full time. He spent time on the course in the 1960s as one of golf's early TV announcers.
Nelson developed a widely imitated "Texas style" swing that was upright and compact, unlike some of the unwieldy swings of early players.
"The mechanics of my swing were such that it required no thought," Nelson said. "It's like eating. You don't think to feed yourself. If you have to think about your swing it takes that much away from your scoring concentration."
Nelson's form was so perfect, so consistent, that the U.S. Golf Association nicknamed the machine it uses to test clubs and balls the "Iron Byron."
"I once watched him hit 20 drivers off a fairway in practice, and the trajectory never varied," recalled Bob Toski, who toured with Nelson and became a famous teacher.
"And he could hit a 1-iron or a 2-iron that carried over 200 yards no more than 15 feet in the air," Toski said. "I've never seen anybody else hit the ball quite the way he did."
Funeral arrangements were pending, with an announcement expected Wednesday. Besides his wife, Nelson is survived by his brother Charles Nelson and sister Ellen Scherman.