Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Death of a Legend

We'd be a very poor sports blog indeed if we failed to note the passing of John Byron Nelson Jr. at the age of 94.

The Texan's competitive career was brief, spanning 1935-42, and then from '44-46 after which he retired to his Fairway Ranch, making periodic appearances at the Masters and Ryder Cup.

His singular achievement was winning 18 PGA tournaments in 1945, including 11 in a row, and he is widely recognized as the model for the modern golf swing. The Golf Hall of Fame expresses his dominance succinctly: "In 75 starts from 1944 to the end of 1946, he won 34 times and finished second 16 times. In those three years, he finished out of the top 10 just once, with a tie for 13th at Pensacola in 1946."

Less recognized is the true meaning of his 113 consecutive cuts made, a record that withstood assaults from Nicklaus (105), Irwin (86) and Finsterwald (72) before falling to Tiger Woods (142).

Today the "cut" is understood to be the players in a four-day tournament who continue play on the weekend. Not so. By the PGA's terms the cut means those who finish "in the money," and in Nelson's day that was a difficult place to be. Many tournaments, including the Masters, paid only the first 12 finishers, and few paid more than 20. Tiger Woods's streak is impressive, but it is not the same achievement -- not in an era where a typical tournament pays the top-70 finishers.

As always, the death of a legend opens the media vaults, and in all but one instance they're much better stocked than our operation:
  • ESPN does a detailed run-down of Nelson's life and the championship years;

  • the PGA runs a profile and condolence book, with Ron Green sorting out Nelson's achievements relative to the courses and players of the day;

  • the BBC gracelessly concedes that Nelson was "one of American golf's greatest ever players;"

  • the New York Times aims for the authoritative (with Nelson edging out Paul Vance, co-writer of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” for lead on the obituary page);

  • Sports Illustrated tugs at the heart-strings and fogs the mind by moving straight past the man in favour of the $94 million, the Dallas PGA tournament (named in Nelson's honour) has raised for local charities; and

  • the Guardian has the first reaction from Nicklaus and Palmer...but don't get too excited -- they were quoting the player's web-sites rather than picking up the phone.


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