Nelson Sees New Lord of the Game
He is 93. He began his professional career in 1932 and was voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame 31 years ago, so Byron Nelson has been around long enough to see just about everything. And Nelson says he has seen few like Tiger Woods.
“The only thing that still makes Jack Nicklaus the greatest is that he did so well for so long. He had the longevity,” Nelson said. “Tiger can be even better. The thing about it is that he needs, because he is so good, he needs to have something to force his mind to have that drive.
“Suppose next year, just suppose, that Tiger wins the Grand Slam. Then he doesn’t have much of a drive any more. He could say, ‘Well, I’ve done it all.’ Unless he invents something else to motivate himself, like trying to win the Grand Slam twice.
“He makes so much money, he’s got to have an inner-personal drive that makes him play well.”
As for playing well, no one ever played better than Nelson did in 1945 when he won 11 consecutive tournaments, 18 in all. Nelson didn’t have Nicklaus’ total of 18 major titles to shoot for, but that doesn’t mean there was a shortage of goals available in his monumental campaign 60 years ago, something that could provide the same kind of drive he looks for now in Woods.
It’s a numbers game. Nelson played 30 tournaments in 1945 and made $63,335.66, paid to him in war bonds. That’s for winning 18 times. Last year, Vijay Singh won nine tournaments and made $10.9 million, so figure that Nelson could have made roughly $21.8 million if the purses were the same.
“Everybody thought that I was in a zone when I won 11 in a row, but I was just rolling week to week,” Nelson said. “The main thing about my streak was, sure, I was playing very comfortably, but you don’t realize how important the money was and how little we were making.”
It’s a useless argument to compare eras or tournament prize money, but Nelson says there is little with which to compare Woods when he is at his best.
His five-shot victory two weeks ago at the Old Course at St. Andrews was Woods’ 10th major title and second this year, taking its place alongside his triumph at the Masters at Augusta National, where he beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff. Even before he won his second British Open, Woods cautioned against getting too far ahead in the race to pass Nicklaus, pointing out just as Nelson did that Nicklaus took an entire career to collect his 18 major titles.
Nicklaus needed 24 years, from his first major at the 1962 U.S. Open to his last at the 1986 Masters. So far, Woods has won his 10 in a little more than eight years.
From his vantage point, in front of his television in the living room of his ranch in Roanoke, Texas, Nelson carefully watched the British Open and what he saw was a performance by Woods that he considered a classic.
“I thought he played great, absolutely great. I really felt it was his greatest major,” Nelson said. “I know he won by 15 shots to win the Open at Pebble Beach, but no one really pressed him. This time, he got a challenge. That’s why it was his best.
“Sure, he landed in a few bunkers and he didn’t do that when he won the first time at St. Andrews, but it didn’t bother him. He seemed to be composed, under control all the time. His mental attitude was so strong, better than anyone else. He was ready.”
Nelson acknowledged that being a front-runner and the favorite is often a precarious position. Second place doesn’t count when you’re counting only victories. Either you win as you’re expected, or you don’t and you’ve failed, said Nelson, who saw enough to believe that Woods worked harder mentally for the British Open than he had for any other major in his career.
The fact that Woods has won all four majors twice in his career and that Nicklaus is the only other player to have done that translates this way to Nelson: Winning all four in a calendar year is not an impossible goal for Woods.
Sure, it’s difficult and you need some breaks, Nelson said. There’s also the chance that you could play your best and somebody else plays even better, but Nelson said there’s one more factor he keeps in mind:
“I think if he can get his game in shape he can win all four. And I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world that could do it.”
Women’s British Open
* When: Today-Sunday.
* Where: Royal Birkdale Golf Club (6,463 yards, par 72), Southport, England.
* TV: TNT (Today-Friday, 10 a.m.-noon, delayed) and Ch. 7 (Saturday, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-noon).
* 2004 champion: Karen Stupples.
* When: Today-Sunday.
* Where: Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club (7,127 yards, par 72), Grand Blanc, Mich.
* TV: USA (Today-Friday, 4-6 p.m., delayed) and Ch. 2 (Saturday-Sunday, noon-3 p.m.).
* 2004 champion: Vijay Singh.
U.S. Senior Open
* When: Today-Sunday.
* Where: NCR Country Club, South Course (7,055 yards, par 71), Kettering, Ohio.
* TV: ESPN (Today-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) and Ch. 4 (Saturday-Sunday, noon-3 p.m.).
* 2004 champion: Peter Jacobsen.