Saga of Lord Byron and the Open
Last updated: 19th July 2012
One of the names you won't see on the 10-strong list of Open winners at Royal Lytham and St Annes, is Byron Nelson, arguably the greatest golfer never to have won the Open.
The fact that he is the only man of the six with more than 50 wins on the US PGA Tour who was never able to hoist 'ye auld Claret Jug' high above his head in triumph, is certainly a strong eyebrow lifter when you first learn about it, but in fact it's not really surprising when you further learn that for financial reasons, this super star of humble beginnings who won two Masters Green Jackets, two US PGA Championships and a US Open title, only played in one solitary Open.
Nelson started life as a schoolboy caddy, interestingly enough in the company of Ben Hogan, another of the greats of golf, and it has been recorded that in 1927, just a year after Bobby Jones won the first Open Championship ever played at Royal Lytham, Nelson beat Hogan in their Texas club's annual Caddie Championship.
Nelson was barely out of his teens when he turned professional in 1932, but it took him a long, hard, five years before he won his first major, the Masters. He earned his Ryder Cup in that same year, 1937, not too long before the Western world became embroiled in the Second World War.
Nelson was never sent to the front. The US Army kept him at home. it has been recorded, because it took his blood 13 minutes to congeal instead of the standard two.
He used the War years to build his career and between 1942 and 1946, a year after Hitler was defeated, he finished in the Top 10 in 65 consecutive tournaments.
This magnificent streak included 11 consecutive Tour victories and 18 overall in 1945, two records that might never be broken, so why then did he not win an Open.
Lord Byron, as we was often called set a tournament record with a 66 when he won the Masters for the first time in 1937, but after finishing 20th in the US Open and losing in the semi-finals of the PGA Championship, his form seemed to have deserted him when he sailed to Britain for the Open at Carnoustie and after opening with a 75 and then falling nine shots behind after the second round, he never really had a chance of beating the eventual winner, Henry Cotton.
A third round 71, however, did enable him to finish 5th.
He never went back though, not so much because it was something of unhappy experience compared to the success he would enjoy at home in America, but rather because he didn't find it worth while at a time in his life when, together with his wife, he had set a goal that would enable the couple to buy a ranch.
A golfers life in the 1940s and 50s was very different to what it is today. Today's golfers of his calibre are multi-millionaires with their own jet planes.
As he explained later, the Open paid very little in those days and "I was a low American and what it came down to was that I lost a good part of my summer (almost a month, as it took two weeks just to sail there and back over the Atlantic) and while I won $185, I spent $1 000 on my boat fare alone."
Nelson achieved his goal in 1946 and was able to buy the ranch he and his wife had dreamed about.
He went on to win 55 PGA tournaments and 5 majors before he retired from tournament golf in 1952, but he never again crossed the Atlantic to play in the Open.
He spent the rest of his life in golf as a commentator and a teacher and it is somewhat ironical that Tom Watson, his most famous pupil, would go on to win more Opens than any other American.
Watson did it in 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982 and 1983. He also won the Masters in 1977 and 1981 and the US Open: 1982.
But he might not have achieved any of that had Nelson not entered his life.
Watson was a late starter in golf. He only took up the game seriously while studying psychology at Stanford University, but proved to be such a natural, that before long he was playing for the university's golf team.
Watson turned professional after his graduation from Stanford in 1971, but was unable to win any tournaments, too often appearing to choke at crucial moments when victory was within his reach and it was at this stage that Nelson approached him with an offer to help.
Watson never looked back, Nelson became his mentor and great friend and in 1974 he made his first big breakthrough when he won his first PGA title.
In the following year he won the Byron Nelson Classic and from there went on to win the first of the five Open Championship that in some ways helped to compensate for his legendary mentor's failure ever to triumph in Britain.
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