Three of the greatest golfers of all time – Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan were born in the exact same year, 1912. Nelson and Hogan were born in Texas, while Snead emerged from the backwoods of western Virginia.
In my opinion, of the three, Nelson was the best player. Nelson won his first major championship, the 1937 Masters, by beating Ralph Guldahl, arguably the best player at the time. Trailing Guldahl by four strokes in the final round, Nelson birdied the Par 3 12th and eagled the Par 5 13th for a six shot swing and ended up winning by two.
Two years later, Nelson won the U.S. Open at Philadelphia Country Club by holing-out a 1-iron approach shot for eagle en route to a playoff victory over Craig Wood and Denny Shute. Nelson had to survive not one, but two playoff rounds to do it. It would be his only U.S. Open win.
Nelson was also the first man to successfully transition his swing from hickory to steel shafts. Early on, as a caddie in Ft. Worth, Nelson realized that the handsy style required for wooden shafts would not work for steel. Nelson put a little action in his legs, allowed his left knee to buckle slightly, and dipped downward through impact while maintaining a straight left arm. The straight left arm helped Nelson generate more power because the new steel shafts were firmer and could withstand the straighter, stronger left side.
By the year 1944, Nelson had won a 2nd Masters title, a PGA Championship, and had 24 tour victories on his resume. In 1944 alone, he won eight tour events. But 1945 was a year for the history books. Nelson won 18 of the 35 tournaments on the schedule, for a ridiculous .514 winning percentage! At one point, he won 11 straight tournaments. The second-longest streak before or since is six. In that same year, Nelson finished 2nd seven times, and in 30 of the 35 events, never finished lower than 9th.
Nelson’s winnings for the year were $63,000, more than 14-million-dollars by today’s PGA Tour standards. Nelson’s scoring average in 1945 was 68.33, still a record. For the year, he was 320 strokes under par and never failed to finish a tournament under par. Sadly, those winnings helped buy Nelson the 800-acre cattle ranch he had always dreamed of. Nelson retired from the game in 1946 at the age of just 34. Years later, he hosted a tournament in his name, the only PGA Tour event named in honor of a player.