Professional / PGA Tour

Who was better: Byron Nelson or Ben Hogan?

Byron Nelson (left) and Ben Hogan.
Byron Nelson (left) and Ben Hogan. (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the March 14 issue of Golfweek.

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NELSON: Head-to-head record proves Lord Byron’s reign

By Jim McCabe

The numbers don’t lie. Comparing Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan and the years (1935-1946) when they intersected on the PGA Tour:

• Nelson won 51 tournaments, Hogan 34.

• Nelson won five majors, Hogan one.

• Eighteen times they played in the same major; Nelson finished higher 12 times, Hogan three.

• In their six Masters together, Nelson finished higher all but once.

• Truth is, Hogan rarely denied Nelson a victory when it mattered. In contrast, nine times Hogan finished second to Nelson, most notably the 1942 Masters playoff. Three down through five, Nelson went 5 under to win.

“When Nelson was at his peak, Hogan had a hard time beating him. Byron was a better player,” James Dodson said.

The official biographer of Hogan, Dodson authored “Ben Hogan: An American Life” and “American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and the Modern Age of Golf.”

Dodson understands the romanticism of the “Hogan mystique,” but said contemporaries such as Henry Picard and Bob Rosburg gave the nod to Nelson.

“If Byron had wanted to keep playing,” Rosburg told Dodson, “I have no doubt the record everyone would be chasing today would have belonged to him.”

True, with Hogan in the service, Nelson in 1944 won eight times. But nonsense to suggestions that the epic ‘45 season came minus Hogan; in six of Nelson’s 18 wins, Hogan played.

In his PGA Tour career, Nelson finished second to Hogan in only two stroke-play events. One came late in 1945, in Portland, Ore. Having won by 14, Hogan reportedly said, “I guess that takes care of this ‘Mr. Golf’ business.’ ”

Hogan acolytes love that. Only their blind loyalty ignores this: Two weeks later, Nelson shot a then-record 259, won by 13 and beat Hogan by a whopping 20 in Seattle.

Having determined that ’46 was it, Nelson played just 20 times. But as an exclamation point, three of his six wins left Hogan in second.

With Nelson missing chunks of playing time in ’46, Hogan had the lead role. He played 32 times and started to flex his muscles. In ’47, with Nelson gone, Hogan became Hogan easier. But, please, he did not win 30 times, eight of them majors, after 1946 strictly because he dug it out of the dirt; he did so because the guy whom he couldn’t beat, Nelson, was digging dirt on his farm.

A lasting sense of symmetry? In the 1927 caddie championship at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, Nelson edged Hogan in a playoff. Eighteen years later at Glen Garden, Nelson earned the last of his 18 victories in that unforgettable ’45 season by six strokes; Hogan finished a whopping 14 back.

What was true as 15-year-olds was true as touring professionals: Nelson was better than Hogan.

HOGAN: More wins, more majors – what more could you want?

By Jeff Babineau

Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy. You can carve up numbers and dissect eras to shine any light you’d like. That’s like saying for one night at a New Jersey nightclub in 1988, Jon Bon Jovi sounded better than Frank Sinatra. But that’s to miss a bigger picture, no?

Golf is ruled by numbers, and here they are: Ben Hogan 64 victories, Byron Nelson 52; Hogan nine majors, or nearly double Nelson’s five.

Both careers had mighty “What ifs?”: Nelson cut his career short to retire to his farm; Hogan’s career was altered by military service and the Greyhound bus that struck the car carrying him and his wife, Valerie, in February 1949. Nelson and Hogan each played the odd event in later years, but their final body of work was similar: Hogan made 300 official starts, Nelson 287. Hogan was first or second in 36 percent of his starts; Nelson slightly less than 30 percent.

Nelson played great to beat Hogan in a playoff at the 1942 Masters and sure, he trounced him a handful of times. That’s golf. Hogan won his share, too. At the ’45 Portland Open, Nelson closed 67-66 and Hogan beat him by 14. Don’t forget that Hogan was a late bloomer. He turned pro in 1929 and didn’t win until 1938.

Look, taking sides opposite Byron Nelson isn’t fun. He was golf’s quintessential gentleman. It’s like taking on Santa Claus. I met Nelson in 1995 at a dinner on the 50th anniversary of his 18-victory season. Sam Snead got up and spoke, and said back in ’45, Old Byron was a terrific golfer, but he didn’t drink, didn’t dance, “and never had any fun.” Lord Byron got up, turned to Snead, and said, “Sam, I won 18 tournaments that year. That was fun.”

But in a two-man match, Nelson-Hogan, I’m taking Hogan. Look at his record in golf’s ultimate test, the U.S. Open: From 1940 to ’60 Hogan played in 15 U.S. Opens, won four and never finished outside the top 10.

As good as Nelson’s historic 1945 season was (Hogan won five times in ’45), I’d put up Hogan’s 1953 as greater: Post-accident, Hogan made five official starts and won all five, three of them majors (he didn’t play the fourth, the PGA).

That season, it wasn’t just that Hogan was winning, but how. He captured the Masters by five shots, the U.S. Open (at Oakmont) by six over Snead and won his only British Open start (at Carnoustie) by four. At the time, only Gene Sarazen had won all four majors.

Hollywood made a movie about Hogan’s life. As the famed Red Smith wrote after Hogan’s post-crash victory at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, “We shall not live to see anything like it again.”

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