Skip to main content
Original Issue

Lord, Nelson Was Tougher Than The Iron Men

Larry Nelson took Oakmont apart for two rounds, while stronger players found the going too rough in the Layup Open

A 60-foot putt that seemed to take an hour or so to work its way through the Allegheny hills before making a slight right-hand turn into the Oakmont Country Club and then into the cup for a birdie on the 16th green served to bring an end to the U.S. Open Championship, and not a minute too soon. Quiet Larry Nelson sank the putt last Monday morning about the time that the rest of Pennsylvania was having a second cup of coffee, and he sank Tom Watson with it. Who knows when the thing might have ended otherwise, what with all the storm delays that had preceded the big putt, and what with everyone playing so cautiously through the slender corridors of the tricked-up course?

So Nelson, 35, a tough operator, is the 1983 Open champion; he's a Vietnam vet from Georgia who has always hit the ball straight and played smart, who won the PGA Championship in 1981 and who must dearly love competition when it's him and you—Watson in this case. In international Ryder Cup match play, Nelson has a 9-0 record.

Though they weren't paired when the last six players went out to challenge the course on Monday morning after final-round play had been postponed by Oakmont's second storm, on Sunday, it was Nelson against Watson. They were tied for the lead at four under par for the tournament. Watson had 4½ holes to play, Nelson had three.

Overnight, they'd had to sleep on the difficulties they would face. Watson would confront a 35-foot birdie putt on the 14th green. The pin was downhill, and the green was slick. Before he'd gone to bed, Linda, his wife, had said, "Tom, how long is that putt?" And Tom had said, "It's too long and very hard."

Watson two-putted for his par 4, but ahead, in the next group, Nelson had found the green of the 228-yard par-3 16th with his four-wood, and now he was rapping the 60-foot birdie putt that any sane man could only hope to get down in two. He thought at first he had tapped it too weakly, and he looked momentarily forlorn. But the ball kept rolling.

Then, when Nelson saw the putt picking up speed as it traveled downhill he picked up speed on foot. As the ball began to zero in on the cup, Nelson added more speed, and he was almost in a dead run when the ball disappeared into the hole. The stroke put him five under and one ahead of Watson, who for most of Sunday had looked like a man headed for his second straight Open victory and his eighth major title.

Nelson routinely parred the 17th and put a beautiful three-wood layup drive into the fairway on 18, while Watson just as routinely parred the 15th and 16th holes. Timing then became important. Watson studied a 130-yard shot to the 17th, badly needing a birdie, while Nelson punched a four-wood onto the lower level of the 18th green. Nelson now had an enormous distance to go on that green, and it's never easy to two-putt to win an Open, but Watson didn't know about the putt Nelson faced. He boldly went for the pin on 17 and caught a rightside bunker. Had he known how far Nelson was from the pin on 18, he would have hit to the fat part of the green.

Nelson did three-putt, missing a 10-footer for par, but Watson, who knew of Nelson's bogey, blew a six-footer for par at the 17th after a nifty bunker shot.

Nelson would then win the Open standing by the scorer's tent beside the 18th green as Watson flew a six-iron too strongly over the green. He chipped bravely—the ball almost struck the pin, but it didn't go in, and Nelson in that instant became the champion, finishing with rounds of 65-67, a record by four shots for the last 36 holes of an Open, and a winning total of four-under-par 280.

Nelson doesn't spray a course with one-liners, so he left everyone with some less than immortal words after Watson's chip flew past the pin. What was your reaction, Larry?

"I was happy," he said calmly.

Not any happier than most of the pros were to get off an awkwardly prepared Oakmont course.

For the 83rd Open, the blue coats and armbands made the puzzling decision to take the driver out of the competition. They did it by the way they set up the fabled old Oakmont layout. They may not have done it on purpose, but they did it just the same. The world's best golfers love to gamble and can frequently be tempted to go for extra distance, but they aren't stupid. Therefore, if you give them the choice of having to nail a driver 270 yards to a bottleneck in a fairway only 18 yards wide at best, or of hitting a one-iron or two-iron off the tee to a much larger area of mowed lawn and taking a slightly longer than usual club to the green, they'll almost always opt for the safer plan of action.

Oakmont became the Layup Open—when it wasn't the Storm-Delay Open. Only the short hitters had to use their drivers with any regularity. The stronger fellows—and that included a lot of folks besides Seve Ballesteros and Watson—accepted the situation at Oakmont with a shrug and an iron or a spoon off the tee. The rough was so brutal there was no point in risking the slightest chance of getting buried deeply in it and then having to hack your way out with a wedge. Did the USGA really expect the game's greatest players to use their drivers on all those par-4s? To try to attack a hole with a driver and a wedge instead of a two-iron and an eight-iron, let's say? "I can't believe they thought we were that dumb," said Raymond Floyd.

Oakmont became exposed as a layup boutique in the first round when Ballesteros used his driver only three times, and only at the three par-5 holes. He one-ironed the course to death for a two-under 69 that tied John Mahaffey and Bob Murphy for the lead. Those two were such short hitters they were forced to use their drivers endlessly, and they were therefore doomed. Murphy found an 81 the second day and Mahaffey a 79 the third. Ballesteros and the other smart strongmen, on the other hand, were able to keep the ball in the fairways and stay on the leader board. The only conceivable way that Ballesteros or Watson or even Nelson could get into any serious trouble was to take the driver out of the bag, but their drivers would mostly stay in the bag. Thus, they disarmed Oakmont instead of it disarming them.

The second round stretched into a second day because of an onslaught of rain, hail, thunder and lightning. Bad weather has affected so many 1983 tournaments it's starting to look like a Kremlin scheme. On Friday a sudden storm struck at 1:33 p.m., postponing play for 2½ hours and making it impossible for all the players to finish the round before daylight ran out. Lightning hit two spectators within sight of Hale Irwin, David Graham and Bobby Wadkins on the 2nd hole. The three dived into a ditch and knelt there for 45 minutes and prayed. Later, Irwin said, "Something like that reminds you that winning a golf tournament isn't very important."

Friday was also the day that Calvin Peete, who did use his driver because he hits it straighter than most people hit a cocktail glass with an ice cube, became a force in the championship. He played 17 holes without a bogey but had to come back on Saturday morning to play the 18th, which he bogeyed for a 68. When the last of the competition straggled in to end Round 2 at 9:30 a.m., Mahaffey and a tour rookie named Joey Rassett were tied for the lead at 141, but Ballesteros was close, so was Watson, so was Floyd. You knew Rassett's presence at the top would be brief. He went south later that day with a 78 at the same time that Mahaffey, who had won the 1978 PGA at Oakmont, would ultimately find all the paint gone from his driver and the luck vanished from his putting stroke.

Meanwhile, Peete did more or less the same thing on Saturday that he'd done on Friday. After rising at 5 a.m. to come to the course and complete his second round with a bogey, he went back to bed, slept till noon, returned to Oakmont and played 17 more holes without a bogey. Then came the 18th again. Peete misclubbed on his second shot, to the green, found that high, gnarled fringe that practically takes chipping out of the U.S. Open and settled for a bogey once more.

At that point, Peete had played the middle 36 holes of the tournament in four under par with only two bogeys, those at the 18th hole, which would become increasingly difficult for anyone to reach on schedule because of the horrid weather. After 54 holes, Peete was one shot off the lead and tied with Nelson, whose game, when right, is perfectly suited to USGA-defined golf courses. Target courses, as it were.

Even Nelson, though hardly a powerhouse off the tee, wasn't hitting his driver very often, being a fair mechanic with his trusty three-and four-woods. It was on Saturday that Nelson proved Oakmont could be had, just as it had been had by Johnny Miller's closing 63 in the 1973 Open. Despite two bogeys. Nelson carved a 65 into the water-hazardless, practically treeless course. The round more than made up for his 75-73 start, scooting him ahead of Floyd, who looked like a serious contender before Sunday with rounds of 72, 70, 72.

Nelson's 65 tied him with Peete at 213 and put them in the twosome that would go out on Sunday directly ahead of Watson-Ballesteros, a pairing which had all the trappings of a match-play event for the Golfer of the World Championship. Sunday was wonderful—while it lasted. Both Watson and Ballesteros started nervously, rescuing pars at the 1st green with gutty putts, but it quickly became evident that Watson was aching to get even for the knockout blow that Ballesteros had laid on him in the Masters in April, the last time they were paired. They began that last round one shot behind Floyd and Craig Stadler, but Ballesteros started birdie-eagle-par-birdie, and the tournament was suddenly over.

This Open looked as if it would be over almost as quickly after Watson's 31 Sunday on the front nine, a five-under display of the most stunning kind of golf. He riveted a nine-iron into the difficult 2nd green and sank a four-footer for a birdie. He boldly went to his driver, one of the few times during the championship, and had only a nine-iron left to the 3rd. There he rolled in a 25-foot birdie.

At the par-5 4th hole he took his sand wedge and hit an absolutely marvelous shot over a bunker to a tight pin and made that five-footer for his third birdie in a row. He parred the 5th and then fired a near-perfect five-iron onto the 6th green and put the six-footer into the heart of the cup for still another birdie. Watson bogeyed the 7th, but so did Ballesteros, thereby missing an opportunity to close in. All along, Ballesteros had been reeling from Watson's heroics but staying in the tournament with saving pars. But just then, when Ballesteros badly needed to make something good happen, it was Watson who bounced back. His four-wood to the 8th hole, a murderous par-3 that runs along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, had Spaniard Killer written all over it. It sailed in there only six feet from the cup, and Watson drilled the putt. A chip and a six-foot putt at the par-5 9th concluded the 31 and the slaying of Seve, who was now buried by five strokes. There was, however, only one thing wrong with Watson's game plan: It failed to shake Nelson.

Up ahead of Watson, Nelson was doing the same thing he had done on Saturday: He was dissecting Oakmont in his own way. Playing virtually flawless golf, which meant splitting the fairways and landing in the immediate vicinity of the pins, Nelson was three-under, out in 33, and thus only three strokes behind Watson with the dangerous back nine to go.

As he went to the 10th tee, Watson must have thought about the '78 PGA. He had taken a four-stroke lead to the 10th on that Sunday and wound up in a tie with Mahaffey and Jerry Pate. He lost to Mahaffey in a playoff. His PGA downfall had begun with a double bogey at the 10th. Last Sunday he drove poorly and nearly double-bogeyed again, but escaped with a bogey. Then he bogeyed the 12th. In about the same time span, Nelson made four errorless pars, and ripped in a birdie at the 14th. Suddenly, Watson was tied with Nelson, not Ballesteros, and Nelson was a mere 11-under for the last 29 holes he'd played.

And then just as suddenly, with Watson on the 14th green and Nelson looking at a birdie putt on the 15th, the second Oakmont thunderstorm blew in. The skies had gradually been darkening, and it was Watson who saw the lightning first. He turned to Bill Campbell, the president of the USGA who was officiating, and said, "We'd better get to the house," or words to that effect. Campbell spoke into his walkie-talkie and suspended play, sirens sounded and drowning rains were soon to come. A player has the option of completing a hole, however, and Nelson chose to stroke the birdie putt at the 15th, thunderbolts or not. It lipped out, and Watson and Nelson had to return at 10 a.m. on Monday, still tied, to see what other surprises old Oakmont might have in store.


Nelson, ten under for the last 36, finally took the lead with a bird on the 70th hole.


Watson's front nine on Sunday almost blew the Open to bits. Then came the 10th hole.


Between Friday's drenching rain (below) and Sunday's, the challenges from Ballesteros (left) and Peete reached their peaks and then sputtered out.