US Open countdown: In 1939, Byron Nelson’s final-round rally paved the way for a playoff win

43rd U.S. Open | June 8-12, 1939

Philadelphia Country Club, Gladwyne, Pa.


Byron Nelson, United States (x) 72 - 73 - 71 - 68 284
Craig Wood, United States 70 - 71 - 71 - 72 284
Denny Shute, United States 70 - 72 - 70 - 72 284
Bud Ward, United States (a) 69 - 73 - 71 - 72 285
Sam Snead, United States 68 - 71 - 73 - 74 286
a-amateur; x-won in two 18-hole playoffs

Part of the stout American golf triumvirate of the 1930s and 1940s, Byron Nelson won his first three major championships before Sam Snead and Ben Hogan captured their first titles. One of them was this U.S. Open.

And it was a tournament many felt Snead should have won, if he had paid attention.

With Nelson, Wood and Denny Shute in the clubhouse, all Snead needed to do was make a par at the finishing hole, a par 5, to win his first national open. But Snead mistakenly thought he was trailing, and played aggressively on the 18th hole. He made triple bogey to place a disappointing fifth.

Meanwhile Nelson began his final round trailing leader Johnny Bulla by five strokes, but he rallied behind a radar-like accuracy to shoot 68 (the course at Philadelphia Country Club played to a par of 69).

In the first 18-hole playoff, Nelson birdied the finishing hole to tie Wood at 68. Shute was eliminated with a 76.

The two men returned the next day to play the final 18-hole playoff. And Nelson — considered one of the straightest drivers of the golf ball who ever lived — got off to a roaring start.

Nelson made a birdie at the third hole – then had a hole-out eagle-2 with a 2-iron from 200 yards out on the next hole to grab a five-shot advantage. He ended up shooting a 70, to Wood’s 73.

The Texan ended up winning five majors and 52 PGA Tour tournaments — fifth all time. He won 18 of them in his record-setting 1945 season.