The Year That Changed History

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Some years are so distinctive that their events become seared upon the pages of history. As though the currents of incidents building up to them could no longer be contained, ushering in a whole new era.
 
The Norman invasion of England in 1066, Columbus sailing to the New World in 1492, and the Declaration of Independence in 1776 are three that quickly come to mind.
 
1912 is another year that still echoes through time. The sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912 while on its maiden voyage caused such shock and anguish that it will never be forgotten. Along with the mourning and anger that accompanied the massive loss of lives, it also caused a re-assessment of the shipping industrys (and societys) collective hubris and head-strong belief that adequate life rafts were a frivolous concern on an unsinkable ship.
 
In sharp contrast, 1912 would also mark the birth of three men who would redefine the world of golf, carrying it across the bridge from hickory shafts to perfectly manicured, rope lined gardens that would serve as the world stage for the sport they dominated.
 
In February, Byron Nelson was born. He was followed by Sam Snead in May and Ben Hogan in August.
 
To say these three men made a major impact on the game would be an understatement. Collectively, they won 198 PGA TOUR events and 21 major championships. Individually, the number of tournaments they won is astounding with 82 for Snead, the all-time leader in victories; 64 for Hogan, third all-time (although Tiger Woods is right on his heels); and 52 for Nelson.
 
Each of these three men has left an indelible mark on the game.
 
Nelson still owns the TOUR mark for the longest consecutive winning streak, with 11, in 1945. He also won a total of 18 events that same year. He won five majors.
 
Nelsons totals would have undoubtedly been higher had he not retired to his quiet Texas farm at 34 years old. However, what is not widely known is that Nelsons motivation was based on more than a desire to simply become a gentleman farmer. In the second half of 1945, at the height of his prowess, Nelson suffered from piercing stomach pains and an aching back. Doctors at Minnesotas Mayo Clinic determined that the ailments were the result of stress. Nelson would play through the following season, once again winning multiple events, and would finally call it quits at the end of that year, except for competing in the Masters (even though officially retired, he would finish second in 1947 and 1950) and selected other events (in 1955, while on vacation in Europe, he was persuaded to play in the French Open, which he then won). His career would take another significant turn in the 1960s, as he served with distinction as a golf commentator for ABC Sports at a time when the young and influential medium discovered golf. In the later years of his life he would serve as a coach to legends like Tom Watson and settle into a sort of elder statesman role, hosting a TOUR event that still bears his name.
 
Only months before his death, Byron Nelson said, The place Im going someday soon will be better than any golf course or winning any championship, because Im racing for a prize that will last forever.
 
Byron Nelson died in 2006 at age 94.
 
Despite the amazing parallels in their lives, Ben Hogan was a distinctively different person than Nelson. Both Hogan and Nelson were caddies at the Glen Garden Country Club. The two had little interaction at the club until the annual caddies tournament. Nelson would beat Hogan by a stroke, the same margin of victory he had over Hogan 15 years later at the 1942 Masters.
 
Where as Nelson was outwardly timid and unassuming, Hogan was intense, navigating his way through life with little patience to suffer fools. He was a tireless worker, who once said, I always outworked everybody. Work never bothered me like it bothers some people.
 
His hardened exterior may have found its roots in a turbulent childhood. At only 9 years old, his father, who was a blacksmith, committed suicide in the family home. But Ben was a tenacious fighter with an iron will and this fighters mentality would serve him well through the rigors of succeeding on the professional tours.
 
Hogan was so committed to achieving his dream of being a champion golfer that he actually went broke, more than once, in the pursuit. On the verge of going bust a third time, Hogan finished second at the 1938 Oakland Open, dismissing any doubts that he had what it takes to succeed. By the late 1940s Hogan found his secret, vanquishing a recurrent hook, replacing it with a precisely controllable fade, a particularly formidable asset for the U.S. Open, which he won four times. Excluding 1949 and 1957, when he missed the U.S. Open due to injury, for the 20 years between 1940 and 1960, Hogan never finished out of the top 10.
 
He was also a force in the rest of golfs majors as well, winning the Masters twice, the PGA Championship twice, and the Open Championship at Carnoustie. In 1953, he won three of that years four majors, missing the PGA Championship due to its timing (conflicting with The Open). He is one of only five men to have won at least one of all of golfs majors over his career.
 
As amazing as all of his accomplishments are, its even more remarkable when viewed with the knowledge of what he had to go through to secure six of his nine majors. The six came after his horrific February 2, 1949 car accident that nearly claimed his life.
 
Ben Hogan won his first tournament, the 1938 Hershey Four Ball (with Vic Ghezzi), and he won his last tournament at the 1959 Colonial.
 
Hogan died in 1997 at the age of 85.
 
There is, perhaps, no one more respected in the game of golf than was he.
 
Sam Snead was distinguished for his athleticism, a near perfect golf swing, incredible longevity and good ole country wisdom that endeared him to generations.
 
As the all-time leader in victories on the TOUR, and with more than 140 around the globe, he could flat-out play. Self describing his swing as oily, Snead possessed a supple athleticism that allowed him to kick a door frame above his head, well into his 80s.
 
Snead taught himself how to play golf on his familys Virginia cow and chicken farm, being the youngest of five brothers.
 
Snead won the Masters three times, the PGA Championship three times and the Open Championship at St Andrews in 1946. The only major that eluded him was the U.S. Open, but not without coming very close on more than one occasion. At the 1939 U.S. Open at Spring Mill in Philadelphia, Snead needed only a par on the final hole to win the tournament. However, in an era before on-course leaderboards, Snead mistakenly thought he needed a birdie to secure the win. Instead, pressing, Snead would score a triple bogey-8 and finished tied for fifth. At the 1947 U.S. Open at the St. Louis Country Club, he missed a 2 -foot put on the final hole to lose in a playoff to Lew Worsham. In total, he would finish second at the U.S. Open four times.
 
Perhaps equally as impressive as Sneads career victory totals, was his longevity at the games highest ranks. His professional career extended over 50 years.
 
In 1965, at the age of 52, he became the oldest winner of a TOUR event when he won his eighth Greater Greensboro Open. At age 60, he finished fourth at the 1972 PGA Championship and in 1979, at age 67, he became the oldest man ever to make the cut on the PGA TOUR (he also shot his age that same weekend).
 
Sam Snead died on May 23, 2002.
 
Some years change history and others define it. 1912, and the birth of three of golfs all-time greats, certainly did both.
 
Copyright 2007 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
 
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a golf journalist, best-selling author (Chicken Soup for the Soul, Fairways of Life) and a golf course general manager. To view Matt's books or sign up for his 'Golf Wisdom Newsletter,'go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.