Larry Nelson isn't your basic pulse-pounding interview. He plays
golf that way too. You can marvel at his needle-threading fairway
shots, but in truth it's more fun watching oil changes at the
corner garage. --Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 20, 1983
At the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Larry Nelson set a record that
still stands: Going 10 under par over the final 33 holes to
snatch the title from Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson, Nelson
finished the championship with scores of 65 and 67, the lowest
total over the final two rounds in Open history. That was not
good enough for a Post-Gazette headline writer and Paul Jayes,
the columnist at the paper who had been underwhelmed by Nelson's
performance in the press room as well as his lack of histrionics
on the course. One of the headlines on Jayes's story read: larry
nelson raises boredom to an art form. Twenty-one years later,
resting on a folding chair at the back of the practice range at
the Kinko's Classic in Austin, Nelson flashes a what-me-worry?
smile when it's suggested that he is the most disrespected,
unappreciated and underrated player of the last 30 years.
"When I won that Open in '83," Nelson says, "it was considered a
fluke by a lot of people, even though I'd won the '81 PGA. It was
my second major, so I guess it was my second fluke."
That statement is followed by a shrug. Nelson, 56, may be the
only player who won at least three majors in the '80s and yet
hasn't been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame--the
others, Ballesteros, Watson and Jack Nicklaus, are in--but he
feels he's had a wonderful life. He has God in his heart, has
been married for 37 years to his Acworth, Ga., childhood
sweetheart, Gayle, and helped raise two sons (Drew, 27, and Josh,
25). Besides the three majors, Nelson won seven other PGA Tour
titles and has 18 victories on the Champions tour. His peers know
how good he was and still is.
Nelson is a man at peace. He isn't bitter about being passed over
for stardom, not in the slightest. Bemused? Maybe. Curious? A
little. He shows no sign of satisfaction when he learns that the
Pittsburgh columnist who ripped him was so antisocial that he
didn't show up for the obligatory going-away party thrown by his
coworkers at the paper.
Nelson has suffered from one of the worst cases of bad timing in
golf history. Because thunderstorms at Oakmont halted play on
Sunday, Nelson won the Open on a Monday morning, when no one was
watching. His two victories in the PGA came at a time when the
championship was considered the least significant major, and he
prevailed over two media darlings, Fuzzy Zoeller in '81 and Lanny
Wadkins in '87. Nelson's best years came during an era when pro
golf was a niche sport with modest television exposure. For
example, he starred in the Ryder Cup--he went 5-0 in '79 and 4-0
in '81--but American fans paid no attention whatsoever until the
matches became competitive, in 1983. "Larry is probably the
greatest unknown player who ever lived," says two-time U.S. Open
champion Andy North.
Tiger Woods recently made headlines for spending four days
playing army. But Nelson, like most of his fellow Vietnam vets,
didn't get much of a welcome home from the nation when he
returned from combat duty. Says Nelson, "If that happened now--a
guy comes back from the 1991 gulf war, starts playing golf and 10
years later wins the U.S. Open--it would be a big story. In '83,
when a Vietnam vet won the Open, the USGA didn't embrace me at
all. I think it was because I was antiestablishment, not having
played junior golf."
If there is a sore spot--and an event that encapsulates Nelson's
career--it is that '83 Open. "I win the only Open to finish on a
Monday morning that wasn't a playoff," says Nelson. "To be
cheated out of walking up the 18th fairway when you're leading
the Open.... I learned at the '81 PGA that that walk is the
thrill of a lifetime. I had a one-shot lead going up the 18th
fairway [at Oakmont], but instead of 40,000 people cheering,
there were maybe 5,000. There were more people in the pressroom
than out on the course when that putt went in."
That putt was the stroke that won the tournament, an unlikely
60-footer for birdie at the par-3 16th hole. That putt was one of
the most remarkable shots in Open history, yet (in another
bizarre twist that works against Nelson's legacy) good luck
finding any video of it. "In the official highlights film IMG
included 15 minutes on Ram golf," Nelson says. "They showed Ram
bags and guys playing Ram equipment. [The commercialism] was so
evident that I wrote a letter to the USGA telling them that I
hoped they'd made enough money off Ram's advertising. The USGA
looked at the video and said, 'You're right,' but they didn't
redo the video. They simply took out all the stuff about Ram. The
remaining highlights were too short, so they mixed them in with
the '82 video, which was when Watson won at Pebble Beach."
It gets worse. Nelson had an endorsement deal with the Ben Hogan
Company in '83--not for big money, as Nelson recalls, probably
less than $10,000. The next year the company was late getting out
its player contracts. Finally, several tournaments into the
season, Nelson received a brown manila envelope in the mail. The
deal offered to the reigning U.S. Open champion was for half of
his '83 pay. "I was so mad, I didn't sign," Nelson says. "I had a
lot of great conversations with Hogan, and those deals weren't
done by him. Knowing Hogan, though, I'm sure he thought the
players should pay him to use his clubs."
Nelson has made a career of going unnoticed, but that was not the
case in Vietnam. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1966, when he
temporarily dropped out of Southern Tech to earn enough money to
finish, he rose to sergeant and in the spring of '68 wound up
serving three months south of Da Nang with the 198th Division.
His job there was to be noticed. "The enemy would shoot rockets
into Chu Lai air base," says Nelson. "We'd get the coordinates
[of the enemy's location], go there, walk around and get shot at.
We lost a lot of people in 90 days. We were lucky we never ran
into a large unit of enemy, but there was a lot of shooting."
Nelson was introduced to golf while he was in the service. His
best buddy, Ken Hummel, had played in college and talked about
resuming a career in the game when he got home. Nelson, a star in
baseball, basketball and football at North Cobb High in Kennesaw,
Ga., thought the game was for sissies. "But he was carrying a
loaded M-16," says Nelson, "so I didn't think it was a good idea
to tell him how I felt about golf at that particular time."
Two things happened after Nelson's tour ended in July 1968.
First, three days after returning from Vietnam, he injured his
arm pitching for his town team in Kennesaw. That was the end of
baseball. Second, Gayle bought Larry a set of clubs. About a year
later Nelson, now a civilian, quit his 10-hour-a-day,
seven-day-a-week job as an illustrator for Lockheed to get a
degree at Kennesaw J.C. He found himself with nothing to do after
his morning classes ended. "I was going to fill up time playing
golf," he says. "That's all. I never thought of being a pro
A natural, he was shooting par within a year and after only four
years had made it through Q school. In 1974 he was playing on the
PGA Tour. The first time he made a cut, at the Greater
Jacksonville Open, he played his way into contention and finished
eighth. What a story, right?
"The headline across the top of the Marietta Daily Journal, our
local paper, was, larry nelson--cough, cough!--chokes in greater
jacksonville open," Nelson says. "I might have been tied for the
lead at one point but shot 40 on the last nine or made some
bogeys coming in, I can't remember exactly. But I remember that
story. It was so damaging to me."
As a Ryder Cup stalwart--his overall record is 9-3-1--and a
two-time PGA champion, Nelson seemed an obvious choice to captain
the U.S. team one day. When Wadkins was named captain for the '95
event at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., Nelson was assumed to be
the next in line. No one is sure why, but despite Nelson's having
gone 4-1 in Ryder Cup play over European captain Ballesteros, Tom
Kite got the job in '97 for the match at Valderrama in Spain. "I
was shocked," says Nelson, who heard the news while playing a
tournament in Japan. "I had discussed it with Lanny and Joe Black
of the PGA, and it was done. It was common knowledge that I'd be
captain in Spain because of my record against Seve. Something
happened, but nobody ever told me what."
"The PGA of America usually does things pretty well," Wadkins
says, "but they made a mistake when they didn't name Larry
Had Nelson been captain in '95 or '97 and spent a year promoting
the Ryder Cup as the captains do, he might have finally gotten
the attention he deserved and been swept into the Hall of Fame,
as Ben Crenshaw was in the wake of his winning turn as captain in
1999. It's hard to figure what has kept Nelson out of the Hall.
He has two more majors than Kite, who was voted in this year, and
one more than Crenshaw and Greg Norman, already enshrined.
Nelson's accomplishments mirror those of Payne Stewart, who had
11 wins, three of them majors, and was enshrined in 2001. If you
ask Nelson, he makes a case for himself by reducing his
qualifications to a simple equation: There are four majors and
more than 40 other tournaments every year. So, he reasons, a
major is 10 times harder to win and therefore worth 10 times more
than a regular event. By that formula Nelson has the Hall-worthy
equivalent of 37 wins.
"Something that bugs me," says Nelson, "is that everyone said
Phil Mickelson, who had 22 wins before the Masters, wasn't a
great player because he hadn't won a major. Now he has a major,
so he's a great player. You wonder, from a press perspective, how
much is a major worth? If the person is someone who's supposed to
win a major, it's worth a lot. If he's not supposed to win a
major, it's not worth much." Nelson assumes he is among the
latter group and says he is fine with it.
Slowly, Nelson gets up from his chair. It's time to practice. In
a few days he'll win the Kinko's. In a few weeks he'll be back
home in Marietta to attend Josh's wedding. Life is good. Always
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GARY BOGDON
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE NESIUS/AP OLD RELIABLE Even on the Champions tour, on which he has won 18 times, the metronomic Nelson hasn't gotten his due.
B/W PHOTO: DIANE HIRES/AP LOST EPISODE Nelson's 60-foot birdie putt that won the '83 Open was omitted from the official USGA highlight video.
"The PGA usually does things well," says Wadkins, "but they MADE
A MISTAKE WHEN THEY DIDN'T NAME LARRY CAPTAIN."