I've always thought Byron Nelson was underrated by people who enjoy putting together lists of the greatest golfers ever - and by people who like to read those lists. I happen to be someone who both enjoys putting them together, and reading them, and I can tell you that putting them together is a lot harder than reading them! Nelson is the perfect example of why.
He's rarely mentioned as a candidate for the title of greatest golfer ever, and he's almost never ranked ahead of his contemparies, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. There are some good reasons for that: Nelson's numbers don't match up. Nelson won 52 PGA Tour events, including 5 majors. Hogan had 64 wins and 9 majors, and Snead posted a record 82 wins including 7 majors.
Plus, many golf fans have the sense about Nelson that he got a lot of easy wins during World War II, when the other great golfers had been swept up in the war.
Nelson's numbers are somewhat misleading, but not in that sense. His numbers don't reflect accomplishments greater than his talent; rather, they fail to accurately reflect his greatness. That's because Byron Nelson retired from competitive golf at the age of 34.
Let's repeat that: Nelson retired at 34. Following the 1946 season, when he won six times, Nelson hung up his spikes. And while he was certainly the greatest golfer who continued playing during WWII (Nelson was rejected for service due physical concerns), WWII probably hurt him more than helped him.
Nelson was easily the dominant golfer of the late 1930s. Hogan was winning tournaments, but wouldn't win his first major until 1946. Snead came on tour in 1937 and immediately started winning tournaments, but like Hogan, it would be a while before he won his first major. In fact, Nelson's biggest challenger for supremacy in the late 1930s was Ralph Guldahl.
So when WWII came along and dramatically shortened the PGA Tour schedule (in 1944, only three tournaments were played), Nelson lost a lot of wins. Combine that with the fact the he retired at 34, and it's easy to see that had Nelson had a full career, he might well have come close to Snead's career win total.
WWII also robbed Nelson of at least several major championships, because most of the majors were canceled during wartime. In 1942, only two majors were played (Nelson won one of them); in 1943, none were played; in 1944, one; in 1945, one (Nelson won it). Surely Nelson would have won at least a couple more majors had all four majors been played each of those years (and had he continued playing past age 34).
Then there's the feeling among some golf fans that Nelson's legendary 1945 season is overrated because all his best competition was serving in the military. Not true. Jimmy Demaret and Craig Wood, among others, played full seasons just as Nelson did. More specifically, critics of Nelson's achievements in 1945 say that Hogan and Snead weren't around to take wins away from him.
Again, not true. Hogan played 19 tournaments that year, and Snead played 27. Nelson won 18 times in 1945 (including the one major that was played) because he was outclassing his oppositition by a margin not matched before or since by any other golfer.
So yes, I believe Byron Nelson is underrated in the history of golf. It sounds a little silly to say that 52 wins and 5 majors don't do a man's talent justice, but that is just the case with Lord Byron.