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Several sports lost legendary figures in 2006, but golf bade farewell to three of its true cornerstone players in Byron Nelson, Patty Berg and Canada's Silver Fox, Al Balding.

They were synonymous with the game, building the sport that makes today's pros rich men and women.

Nelson, who died Sept. 27 at 94, had a golf career that lasted from hickory shafts to titanium clubheads. He is remembered for setting an untouchable standard in 1945 with the greatest year in the history of the game: 18 wins, and a stunning 11 of those in a row.

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Berg was 88 when she died Sept. 10 and is recalled as a pioneer of the women's game. She won an Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour-record 15 major titles and was one of the 13 founding members of the tour in 1950.

Balding, who was called to the final tee July 31 at 82, showed the golf world that Canadians can excel at the game despite coming from a cold climate. He was the first Canadian to win a PGA Tour event, the 1955 Mayfair Open in Sanford, Fla. He went on to win three more big events in 1957 - the Miami Beach Open, West Palm Beach Open and Havana International - and the 1968 World Cup with George Knudson.

Among others who took their final bows were some of sport's great icons and colourful characters: boxing champions Floyd Patterson and Willie Pep; baseball's Kirby Puckett and Johnny Sain; hockey's Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion and Red Storey; basketball's Red Auerbach; Olympian Bob Mathias; hockey and racehorse owner Steve Stavro; and media favourites Curt Gowdy, Pat Marsden and Jim (Shaky) Hunt.

Golf lost part of its living history in the man called Lord Byron. His name has been woven into the game. He had a swing so even and repeatable that the robotic swing machines used to test equipment have been nicknamed Iron Byron. He grew to be so beloved in golf that in 1968 he became the first player for whom a PGA Tour stop was named. He is commemorated at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., with a bridge named for him.

Nelson won a total of 52 events, including five majors: the Masters in 1937 and 1942, the U.S. Open in 1939 and the PGA Championship in 1940 and 1945. Then, at 34, he retired after the 1946 season to spend more time on his ranch. In those days, professional golf was not a way to get rich, even if a player won as consistently as Nelson did.

Arnold Palmer, one of the heirs to Nelson's throne, hailed him as "one of the greatest players who ever lived."

"I don't think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year," Palmer said in tribute.

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"We have lost a giant in the game . . . someone who elevated the game in every way: as a player, an ambassador and a gentleman," said Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and winner of Nelson's tournament in 1983.

The closest any player has come to Nelson's streak is six, first by Ben Hogan in 1948. When Tiger Woods reached that number in 1999-2000, Nelson was typically gracious when putting his own mark into perspective.

"Any time you make a record stand for 55 years, why, you've done pretty good," he told Associated Press six years ago.

Nelson held the PGA Tour records for most consecutive made cuts (113) and for single-season scoring average (68.33) until both were broken by Woods.

Nelson's mark on the Masters was honoured in 1958 when the path that takes golfers over Rae's Creek to the 13th tee was named Nelson Bridge, commemorating his final-day charge over the 12th and 13th holes that sent him to victory in 1937. He later was the annual honorary starter, along with Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. Nelson made his final ceremonial shot in 2001 and his swing, shorter because of his age, was still wonderful to behold.

"The mechanics of my swing were such that it required no thought," Nelson said. "It's like eating. You don't think to feed yourself. If you have to think about your swing it takes that much away from your scoring concentration."

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Berg was the LPGA Tour's first president, serving from 1950-52, and was the money leader in 1954, 1955 and 1957. She ended her career with 60 victories and is a member of the LPGA Tour and World Golf halls of fame.

"She was really an original. There will be only one Patty," former LPGA Tour star Sandra Post of Canada said. "She was famous for her clinics and started doing that during the war years. And she didn't just hit shots. She was an entertainer and really funny. Patty was the whole package.

"Think about what she saw, from the war, through the years with the Babe [Zaharias]and all the way into the time when the tour was on TV. She was still playing up until the eighties. She was very active and vibrant until the last couple of years."

The LPGA created the Patty Berg Award in 1978 for outstanding contributions to women's golf.

Balding's 15-year PGA Tour career came to an end because of shoulder problems, but he loved to teach and continued to play the game at a high level. He captured the Canadian Professional Golfers' Association's senior title in 2000 at 76 and in 2002 he shot a 66 - an amazing 12 strokes lower than his age.

He was born April 29, 1924, in Toronto and didn't seriously take up golf until after the Second World War. He took a starter's job at Oakdale Golf and Country Club in Toronto, earning $6 a day and using the money to buy a new set of clubs. Balding won the Canadian PGA Championship four times. He was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1968, and into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1985.

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About the Author
Sports reporter

James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More


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