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NOSTALGIA LINKS TO THE PAST

Tracing the course of the Byron Nelson
By Pat Seelig |

THE BANNER HEADLINE in The Dallas Morning News that Thursday morning in 1944 blared: “U.S. Tanks Hurdle Meuse Defenses of the Reich.” Sanger Bros, was reminding customers in an ad that clothing was needed for victims of the Nazi robot bombs in England, and The Important Years, starring Jean Arthur, was playing at the Majestic Theater.

Across town at the posh Lakewood Country Club, a simple ceremony was taking place to start the Texas Victory Open-the first major professional golf event in Dallas in nearly 17 years. A military band played The Star Spangled Banner as Col. Anderson of the Ashburn General Hospital raised Old Glory above the red brick clubhouse. Byron Nelson, perhaps the best golfer of the period and certainly the home-grown favorite of the crowd, sent the first tee shot down the fairway of the 335-yard, par-4 opening hole.

It was hardly the most important shot in Nelson’s illustrious career, but from those simple beginnings in the dark days before television. Dallas became a regular stop on the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour honoring Lord Byron himself.

Golf was no stranger to Dallas. Seventeen years earlier, matinee idol Walter Hagen had captured the PGA Championship, one of golfs major titles, at the old Cedar Crest Country Club in Oak Cliff. The dour Ralph Guldahl came out of Woodrow Wilson High School to become one of the best players of the Depression, winning two U.S. Opens and a Masters tournament before mysteriously losing his game in 1940.

Nelson had stepped to the throne vacated by Guldahl and a host of nearly forgotten golfers of the Thirties. Rising out of the caddie yard of Fort Worth’s Glen Garden Golf Club, Nelson had become the king of professional golf in the late Thirties. Playing out of Reading, Pennsylvania (a common practice of the time was for a good player to represent a club from a different region), Nelson rolled to a pair of Masters titles, a U.S. Open and a PGA before World War II.

The only thorn in Nelson’s side was a feisty, wild-swinging alumnus of that same Glen Garden caddie pen: Ben Hogan. If you were to ask them today, both men would say they were nothing but friendly rivals, but when the titles were on the line, Hogan and Nelson were bitter enemies.

Hogan is considered to be one of the three best players in the history of the game (Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones are the other two), with Nelson on a second tier that also included Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Harry Vardon. In head-to-head competition with Hogan, however, Nelson was the leader. Counting a 1927 Glen Garden caddie tournament, the score was Nelson 4, Hogan 1.

The Texas Victory Open wasn’t considered a head-to-head battle, but, for Nelson, it showed that he was on the verge of the type of play that propelled him into the game’s record books.



WARTIME SACRIFICES

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to most of what made up the professional golf tour during the Depression.

Nelson was the “Good Lord Of Golf,” and Hogan was trying desperately to cure a vicious hook that, at times, would swing wildly out of play. By 1941, Hogan had controlled the hook to become the leading money winner for the previous two years, but he hadn’t captured the major championships that served as a yardstick for greatness.

Golf hadn’t been given the green light by President Franklin Roosevelt that baseball had been given (it was not, after all, the national pastime), thus by late 1942, nearly every major star was in uniform. Hogan had gone into the Army Air Corps; Sam Snead had entered the Navy, along with Texan Jimmy Demaret; and Nelson was rejected from the service because of a blood disorder. He spent his time giving exhibitions at war bond drives and service hospitals.

During those years, golf courses were often converted to victory gardens, and rubber for golf balls was so scarce that many clubs drained their ponds to reclaim lost balls. The beautiful Bayshore Country Club in Miami became an Army Air Corps officer-training facility, and OCS candidate Hogan earned his lieutenant’s bars there.

Later, like many top golfers, he received a cush assignment stateside. Hogan was stationed in Special Services at Tarrant Field in Fort Worth, where he drew duty as the general’s golf partner.

Nelson and a golfer from Philadelphia named Harold “Jug” McSpaden became known as the “Gold Dust Twins” as they toured the country playing exhibitions. By 1944, they had started to put together the beginnings of a new tour.



CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

The mood of America and Dallas was one of cautious optimism. The tide had turned in all major theaters of the war, but it was still a year before peace returned to the land.

The War Commissioner’s office gave PGA tour director Fred Corcoran permission to start a limited golf tour, with Dallas and the Salesmanship Club landing one of the 22 slots on the abbreviated circuit.

The event was aptly named the Texas Victory Open, in honor of what was sure to be a glorious American triumph. The proceeds were to go to the Ashburn General Hospital in McKinney to finance a nine-hole golf course so that wounded American veterans could learn a game of a lifetime while recovering from their injuries.

The ravages of wartime had taken their toll on the game. Courses hadn’t been kept in good condition, and rules had been relaxed to allow players to carry extra clubs to meet the unusual conditions.

Throughout the summer before the Dallas event, Nelson and McSpaden were collecting the green to go with the gold in their nickname. Turning in scores that made a mockery of par, the twosome had given the sports-starved fans something to talk about as they triumphed in tournament after tournament.

After 10 tournaments, Nelson was 60 under par, and McSpaden was 69 under par. Together they had won every event, with Nelson winning the two prior to the Texas Victory Open.

Despite Nelson’s credentials, The Dallas Morning News dubbed his old nemesis, Ben Hogan, as the favorite. It seemed that a sportswriter from The News, Felix R. McKnight, had wandered out to Lakewood the week before to find that Lt. Hogan had been furloughed from Tarrant Field and had toured the sporty layout in a brisk 66 shots, a new course record.

Thus, when 109 amateurs and 79 professionals (mostly local pros or furloughed ones like Hogan) teed off on September 7, 1944, modern professional golf was officially introduced to the city.



DIFFERENT COURSE

The Lakewood Country Club of 1944 was considerably different from the current club that sits at the end of Gaston Street. The pavement stopped at the clubhouse, and the eighth and ninth holes ran from the current site of the Lakewood Theater parking lot across from the Dixie-Lakewood restaurant and onto the current club parking lot.

The club was one of the two best in the city, and it was considered quite a coup for the young mover-and-shaker membership to wrest the tourney from the slightly more established Dallas Country Club. The course wasn’t up to the standards of the Winged Foots and Baltusrols that made up the championship courses of the East, but it provided the golfer then, just as it does now, with a test of finesse and shot-making. The greens had grown hard and fast, and the Bermuda grass played havoc with the putting strokes of the competitors.

Unlike modern events in which the players sign up weeks in advance, the Salesmanship Club really had no idea who would be in the field. They knew that Nelson and McSpaden would be there and that Hogan had gotten leave, but as late as the Sunday before the tourney, sports editor George White of The Dallas Morning News had devoted an entire column to Harry Cooper and Ralph Guldahl, two hometown favorites who never made it to the course.

Joining Hogan and the Gold Dust Twins was Earl Stewart Jr., a cocky young amateur who was also stationed at Tarrant Field. However, while Hogan had begun playing golf with the general, Cpl. Stewart had been leading the flight line in jumping jacks as a P.E. instructor.

Wrangling a pair of three-day passes, Stewart was chomping at the bit to test his skills against the pros.

“I knew I could beat those guys,” recalls Stewart, who is now head coach of the SMU women’s golf team. “I was a good player, and I wanted to show them just how good I really was.”

Stewart, it seemed, was in for a bit of a surprise. A good showing in the opening two rounds put the 22-year-old corporal in a pairing with Hogan and Nelson. “The greens were hard, and I was hitting the ball on the green, but it was bouncing over the back.

“Nelson and Hogan were hitting their shots on the greens, and the ball was stopping. I just couldn’t figure out what they were doing to make the ball stop. That night, I sneaked down to the bag room and found out.”



INSTANT LESSON

Running his finger over the grooves of Hogan’s irons, Stewart nearly drew blood. The grooves had been filed with a triangle file so sharp and deep that the extra spin they imparted on the ball could stop it on a concrete highway.

“It wasn’t illegal back then to doctor golf clubs, so I went home, and my dad and I filed down my irons to match theirs,” Stewart says.

Despite the overnight lesson, Stewart finished fifth in what proved to be a typical Nelson runaway. Nelson, who was destined to be named Associated Press Athlete of the Year in 1944, took the lead in the second round after McSpaden opened the tournament with a 68. Playing bold irons and mastering the bumpy Bermuda greens, Lord Byron padded his lead to four shots after three rounds and seemed to have things in hand.

Always nervous (Nelson often threw up before teeing off), Nelson told the reporters that McSpaden could easily catch him the next day. Proving his partner to be a prophet, McSpaden started the final round with birdies on the first and third holes. Not to be outdone, Nelson responded with a 5-footer on one and a heroic wood shot to the par 5 third for another birdie.

Both men turned in 37-1 over par-but Nelson, as he had done so often, turned on his game with birdies on 10, 13,15 and 16 to put the tournament out of reach.

Nelson saved the best for last. As the crowd of 12,000 ringed the final green, Nelson putted on the run, canning a 34-foot putt to finish 10 shots in front of the hapless McSpaden.

And Lt. Hogan: Ben could do no better than a tie for third, 12 shots back and two shots ahead of the red-haired Stewart, the low amateur.

The victory earned Lord Byron $2,400 in war bonds (worth $2,666.67 at maturity), edging him closer to a record-setting $37,967.69 for the year. The victory also propelled Nelson to what many golf experts consider the greatest single year of any athlete: his 11 consecutive and 19 total wins (including the PGA) in 1945. His record-shattering $63,335.66 stood unchallenged for nine years, and no golfer has ever won more than 13 tournaments in a single year. By 1984 standards, Nelson’s winnings would have been more than $1.5 million, compared with the PGA record of $530,808.33, which was set by Nelson’s protégé’, Tom Watson, in 1980.

The Texas Victory Open was a huge success for the sponsoring Salesmanship Club. The gross profit was announced as $25,000, and the pros were invited back the next year for the new Dallas Open at the Dallas Country Club.

Nelson didn’t win that one, dropping tothird behind the recently discharged SamSnead. By 1946, Nelson retired to his ranchnear Roanoke.