Bill Nichols

Monday, May 14, 2012

1912: Birth of Golf Legends Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead

The year 1912 saw the sinking of the Titanic, the unwrapping of cellophane, and unprecedented consumption of Oreos.

Woodrow Wilson won a rare four-way presidential election, football added a fourth down, and hockey eliminated the rover position.

Golf was still in its infancy. Although Englishman Harry Vardon had a firm grip on the ancient game, three events occurred that year which would dramatically change the sport:

A cotton farmer’s wife gave birth to John Byron Nelson Jr. in Long Branch, Texas. Samuel Jackson Snead was born on a farm near Hot Springs, Va.; and William Ben Hogan, the son of a blacksmith, was born in Stephenville.

The hardscrabble lives of those three would eventually intersect. From their starts in caddie yards, they came of age in the Depression, carving careers over hard-pan fairways and bumpy roadways.

Their earnings were paid in war bonds. Their contributions were priceless.

The Big Three revolutionized the game, ushering in the modern era with steel shafts, persimmon woods and model swings.

Seemingly strengthened by their hardships, Nelson, Hogan and Snead combined for 198 victories. That’s 39 more wins than the next generation’s dominant threesome of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

The boys of 1912 each left distinct marks, accomplishing feats that may never be matched:

_ Snead won more career titles (82) than any man.
_ Nelson won the most tournaments in a season (18) and consecutively (11).
_ Hogan posted perhaps the greatest comeback, rebounding from a near fatal car accident to win three of four Grand Slam events.

The Big Three’s collective zenith came in 1945 when they won 29 of the 37 PGA Tour events played that year.


Nelson and Hogan, the gold dust twins, remain linked to DFW fans through the HP Byron Nelson Championship and Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Even Snead figures heavily in our local golf history.

The Big Three won Dallas’ first three tour events. Nelson claimed the 1944 Dallas Open at Lakewood Country Club by 10 shots. Snead won in 1945 at Dallas Country Club. And Hogan won in 1946 at tough Brook Hollow Golf Club, posting the score (4-over 284) he predicted would win.

Hogan, a dues paying member at Colonial Country Club and best friend of founder Marvin Leonard, won a record five Colonial’s including the first two. He is the only player to sweep the Dallas and Fort Worth events in the same year, 1946.

At the entrance of ``Hogan’s Alley’’ stands a gold statue of Bantam Ben, his trademark follow-through overlooking the 18th green. At the entry of the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Las Colinas, stands a gold statue of Lord Byron.


Nelson was 10 when his family moved to 3109 Timberline Drive in Fort Worth. In 1922, they couldn’t have known how important that address would be.

Nelson discovered soon enough. He walked to the end of his street, crossed the road and squeezed his lanky frame through a hole in the fence. He was standing a chip shot away from the fourth green at Glen Garden Golf & Country Club, one of only a handful of courses in the area and the only one with grass greens in the early ‘20s.

It was in Glen Garden’s caddie barn where Nelson learned his life’s calling. The graceful yet powerful swing he honed after the bags were stored would evolve with machine like precision. Nelson’s mechanics were so sound that when the USGA developed a device for testing golf balls and clubs, it was called ``Iron Byron.’’

Nelson befriended a skinny teenager at Glen Garden who was so hungry for work that he’d arrive early, sometimes fighting for his spot in line. Hogan’s tenacity would become legendary.
``I always outworked everybody," Hogan once said. ``Work never bothered me like it bothers some people.’’
The caddies often played ``shag,’’ a game in which they all teed off and then the short shooter would have to shag all the balls.
Nelson used his height and enormous hands to his advantage. As the steel shaft was replacing hickory, he developed what is considered the basis for the modern golf swing.
He relied on the muscles in his hips and legs instead of the wrists. His upright swing involved a full shoulder turn with knees flexed to impact.
``He’d come to Glen Garden to practice between tournaments,’’ said Wendell Waddle, current Glen Garden member who caddied at the club when Nelson was a journeyman pro in his mid 20s. ``We’d go out to No. 1 and I’d shag balls for him. He hit a lot of long irons, using a big cedar tree as his target. I’d stand in front of the tree and catch balls, most on one hop because he was so accurate.’’
Nelson was efficient. He won 54 tournaments, including five majors. A testament to his consistency, he finished in the money 113 straight times.
His streak of 11 victories in 1945 is considered one of the least attainable in all sports. He won 18 times that year, finished second seven times and posted 19 consecutive sub-70 rounds. He set the scoring average standard at 68.33.
From 1944 through 1946, Nelson posted 34 victories and finished second 16 times in 75 starts. He finished outside the top-10 only once.
"Byron Nelson accomplished things on the pro tour that never have been and never will be approached,’’ Arnold Palmer said of his childhood idol.
Nelson never forgot his roots. An honorary member, he visited Glen Garden until his death in 2006, sometimes bringing a group from his church out to play.
More than 40 years after retiring from competitive golf at age 34 to become a full-time rancher, Nelson in 1989 sent Glen Garden members a letter, which hangs on the clubhouse wall.
 “I don’t think it would have been possible for me to develop such a good game of golf,’’ he said of his time there. ``I shall always be grateful to you good people for the friendship and good wishes from all you fine members.” 
As a kid, Hogan struggled with his homemade cross-handed swing. His drives dribbled down the fairway until Ted Longworth, former head pro at Glen Garden, rearranged the youngster’s grip.
In a 1946 story in the Dallas Morning News, Longsworth recalled his conversation with Hogan: ``Ben, if you’re going to keep hogtieing that club, I’m going to get you a job on a cattle ranch.’’
But it was Nelson that Longsworth recruited to replace him as pro at Texarkana when he departed for Portland, Ore.
Nelson and Hogan were 15 when they battled for the title in Glen Garden’s second caddie tournament. Nelson made a 30-foot putt on the ninth hole to force a playoff and then made an 18-foot par putt to win on the 18th hole.
The next year, Nelson received the club’s only junior membership. Hogan matriculated to public courses and then turned pro to put dinner on the table.


Hogan developed a tough exterior staving off poverty during his youth. He was 9 when his father committed suicide. After his death, the family moved from Dublin to Fort Worth.

Hogan’s success came later than Nelson’s. After turning pro, Hogan fought a hook and financial hardships.

But he was determined to beat adversity. He studied the game and applied his work ethic to his swing construction.

As he searched for the secret in the dirt, Hogan went broke twice. In 1938 he was seriously contemplating quitting when he finished second at the Oakland Open. His final-round 69 earned him $380 and new life.

``I played harder that day than I ever played before or ever will again,’’ he said.

His resolve paid off. Armed with a swing that generated power with uncanny accuracy, Hogan won the first of his 64 titles later that year at the Hershey Four Ball with Vic Ghezzi.

Hogan was the leading money winner on tour from 1940 through 1942. He received his honorable discharge from the Army Air Forces one day before the 1945 Dallas Open at Dallas Country Club.

Able to practice regularly again and to concentrate solely on golf, Hogan set out to end Nelson’s dominance.  Forty of Hogan’s wins, including all nine of his major titles, came after the 1945 season. He caught fire in 1946, Nelson’s final full year.

In contrast to Nelson’s short tenure was Hogan’s longevity. In February 1949, following a season in which he led the tour in earnings, Hogan was almost killed when his Cadillac collided head-on with a Greyhound bus, which was trying to pass a car, 150 miles east of El Paso.

Hogan suffered ``numerous fractures,’’ including a fractured pelvis and broken collar bone. He returned to Fort Worth in a cast from his waist down. In December Hogan was hitting balls and a week later playing at Colonial. In his first two rounds since the accident, he shot 71 and 72. 

In January he played 18 holes for five straight days and then called officials at the Los Angeles Open. ``Count me in,’’ he said. After 72 holes he was tied for the lead with Snead, but then wore down in the 18-hole playoff.

Despite permanent damage in his legs, Hogan carried on. He won the 1950 U.S. Open, the ``Miracle at Merion,’’ in an 18-hole playhoff with George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum. The next year he captured his first Masters and the U.S. Open. Then in 1953 he had his greatest season with victories at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open.


Snead, who ran track and played football in high school, taught himself to play the bango and trumpet by ear. The youngest of five boys, Snead made his own set of clubs, got some balls from the nearby Homestead Hotel course where he caddied, and belted shots across the chicken farm.

The ultimate feel player, he learned to play golf barefooted. At 19, he was promoted to assistant pro at The Homestead, and then joined the tour in 1936.

``When I swing at a golf ball right, my mind is blank and my body is loose as a goose,’’ Snead said.

Snead was an iron man. ``The Slammer’s’’ sweet swing, a mixture of power and grace, kept him winning over six decades.

In addition to his 82 official PGA Tour victories, Snead claimed almost 60 other titles worldwide. He won seven majors.

His success came almost immediately. Promoted as a ``hillbilly force of nature,’’ he won 12 times in 1937 and ‘38.

He would go on to finish second in the U.S. Open four times, once when he missed a 30-inch putt on the final green of a playoff with Lew Worsham in 1947.

Snead won three Masters, three PGA Championships and one British Open. He led the tour in earnings three times, and played on seven Ryder Cup teams. His final major victory was at the 1954 Masters, where he defeated Hogan in an 18-hole playoff by one stroke.

Snead became the oldest winner _ 52 years, 10 months _ of a PGA Tour event at the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open. He finished fourth at the PGA Championship at age 60 in 1972 and was third in 1974.

``Desire is the most important thing in sport," Snead once said. ``Jeez, no one has more than I've got.’’


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