When Nelson's Streak Hit Philly

 With the AT&T National underway at Aronimink Golf Club, here’s the third in a series of blog posts on other noteworthy tournaments in Philadelphia’s golfing past:

1945 Philadelphia Inquirer Invitation at Llanerch Country Club

They didn't know it when they rose early on June 17, 1945, but Ed Carman and Al Besselink would be spending that steamy Sunday as extras in the longest-running streak in golf history.

Carman, an 18-year-old golfing enthusiast from rural Bridgeton, N.J., would take a bus, subway and trolley to reach the Llanerch Country Club in Manoa, drawn there by his fascination with the man sportswriters dubbed "Lord Nelson."

Meanwhile, Besselink, a cocky 22-year-old Army corporal and promising amateur golfer, drove to Llanerch that morning from his parents' home in Merchantville, N.J., hoping for a respectable finish on the final day of the Philadelphia Inquirer Invitation tournament.


Before departing the Delaware County course that evening, Carman would get his idol's autograph. And Besselink would shoot a second straight even-par 70 to finish in 13th place, 21 shots behind the winner.

The name on both the autograph and the $3,333.33 war bond presented to the $17,500 event's champion was the same - Byron Nelson.

Sixty six summers ago at Llanerch, Nelson, then 33, won his seventh straight PGA tournament. The smooth-swinging, teetotaling Texan would triumph the next four weeks as well, establishing a record 11-tournament victory streak that still has not been challenged.

"Never happen again,"  Besselink, now 88, said in 2005. "That man was just amazing."

In winning, Nelson fired a course-record 63 on Sunday. He topped a hard-luck Philadelphia Country Club pro, Harold "Jug" McSpaden, who closed with three consecutive 66s and finished second.

McSpaden would end up second to Nelson several times during the streak, which, ironically, began when the two teamed to capture the Miami International Four-Ball in March.

Nelson recalled last month that he and his wife, Louise, were staying with McSpaden and his wife, Eva, for the tournament at Llanerch.

"As it happened, I did birdie all but one hole on the way in, shot 63, and beat Jug by 2," Nelson, who died in 2006,  said a year earlier. When McSpaden "accepted his check, he said, 'You not only beat my brains out, but you eat all my food, too!' "

Nelson had won in Montreal the week before the tournament. He would go on to victories in the Chicago Victory National Open, the PGA Championship, the Tam O'Shanter Open, and the Canadian Open.

In all, Nelson would capture 18 tournaments in 1945, the single most dominating season in tour history. And while his earnings barely topped $50,000, they were enough to buy him the Texas ranch where he resided the rest of his long life.

“Having the extra incentive of buying the ranch one day made things a lot more interesting," Nelson wrote in his 1993 autobiography, How I Played the Game. "Each drive, each iron, each chip, each putt was aimed at the goal of getting that ranch. And each win meant another cow, another acre, another 10 acres, another part of the down payment."


World War II was two months from its conclusion in the Pacific when the ragtag PGA Tour stopped at Llanerch that final week of spring.

 The era's professional circuit was closer to a traveling sideshow than the upscale sporting showcase it would become decades later. A relatively small band of itinerant players typically joined with local pros in search of modest paydays.

The Inquirer Invitation had begun a year earlier, at Frankford-Torresdale Country Club, to promote the sale of war bonds and to raise money to purchase golf equipment for injured servicemen. (The '44 tournament was won by Sam Byrd, a former New York Yankees outfielder who would capture six PGA tournaments.)

With its newspaper sponsor, the event received publicity most golf stops could only dream about. Crowds estimated at between 7,000 and 10,000 showed up each day in 1945. Admission was $1.50 for the first two rounds and $2 on the weekend.

"And there were no ropes separating the gallery from the players," said Carman, who became a golf professional himself and operated the Running Deer Golf Club near Elmer, N.J. "I stood right next to Byron Nelson that entire round. He was a true gentleman and a fantastic player."

The tournament also benefited from the opening-day appearance of perhaps the most popular entertainer of the day - Bing Crosby.

On Wednesday, the crooner had performed for injured servicemen at the Valley Forge General Hospital near Phoenixville. Crosby, an avid golfer, sang a few songs for the Llanerch gallery before teeing off at 1:02 p.m. Thursday, midway through the field of 134. He played with a pro, Ed Dudley, and a local amateur, Sonny Fraser.

Crosby shot an 83 in his only round, and was 17 shots behind the opening-day leader, Jimmy Hines. Along the way, he shared a ham sandwich with a wounded veteran in the gallery and teamed up for an impromptu duet with his teenage caddie.

Nelson and Johnny Bulla were tied for second with 68s.

Considering that stars like Ben Hogan were still in the service, the field was a strong one. In addition to Nelson, Bulla, McSpaden and Byrd, it included Sam Snead, who would drop out with an ankle injury after a first-round 70; Craig Wood, a Masters and U.S. Open champion; such then-familiar names as Ed Furgol, Tony Penna and Bobby Cruickshank; and local players such as Besselink, Bill Hyndman and Bruce Coltart.

"A lot of the big boys were there," Besselink said. "But everybody knew the man to beat was Byron Nelson. He was one of the greatest iron players there ever was, and that year he hardly ever let down."

Heading into the final round, McSpaden and Bulla, at 205, led Nelson by a single shot. The eventual winner had followed his opening 68 with another 68 and a 70. His drives and iron play were so consistent that he would have scored even better had he been able to sink a few putts on Llanerch's multitiered greens.

"Heaven help me if the rest of my game had deserted me at any time," Nelson said of his putting at the time. "I would have been a goner."

With his hero on the verge of another victory, Carman wanted to be there. He knew nothing about Philadelphia and its transportation system, but learned that he could reach Llanerch by taking a bus from Bridgeton to 13th and Filbert Streets, the Market Street El to 69th Street, and then a trolley along West Chester Pike.

"I had to walk quite a ways from the trolley to the course," he recalled. "It was a long day. I was up at 6 and I didn't get home that night until after 10. But it was worth it. I watched every motion he made that day. He was so sound."

Nelson put it all together that day. He landed seven approach shots within three feet of the cup. The shot Carman remembered best came on a front-nine par-5. It was a drive that, according to Inquirer writer Art Morrow, traveled 330 yards, and bounded off the fairway and into high grass.

"He couldn't see the flag and he asked the caddie where it was," Carman said. "The caddie pointed him toward a distant tree and he hit the ball."

The shot landed 15 inches from the cup.

"Then I had a feeling that everything was going to be all right," Nelson told reporters after his round.

His 63 - for a total of 269 - shattered the 10-year-old course record of 65, set in a local PGA tournament by Clarence Clark. It was, by 3 shots, the best round of the day and the tournament.

"And the conditions weren't the greatest,"  Besselink said. “it was really a scorcher that day.”

The temperature hit 92 degrees. In fact, a prolonged heat spell had killed 15 Philadelphia-area residents the previous week.

McSpaden was on the 14th hole when the walkie-talkies that helped update the totals on the trend-setting 18th-hole scoreboard began buzzing about Nelson's round.

The local pro birdied the 16th and 17th holes but needed an eagle on No. 18 to tie. He parred it for another 66. Nelson took off his white visor, donned a badly out-of-date sports coat, and accepted the winner's bond from tournament director Francis Murray.

"Llanerch invited me back several years ago to commemorate the tournament," said Besselink, who became a solid PGA pro and won the initial Tournament of Champions in 1953. "It's a great little golf course. And it was a real honor to have played it with a legend like Byron Nelson."