JOHNS CREEK – The 93rd PGA Championship was Larry Nelson’s last major. It would have been fitting for him to have made the cut, but at age 63 you tip your hat to a man who scored 78-75 for 153. Not bad for one two years away from drawing Social Security.
Nelson’s entire career has been one of serendipity when you consider that he went from learning the game at a driving range to claiming three major championships, but a professional who always toiled in the background, often in anonymity.
This is the course where Nelson won 30 years ago and returned this year, less than an hour from his home, to receive the PGA’s Distinguished Service Award. Bobby Jones, who influenced, before his death, the United States Golf Association to bring the U. S. Open to the Atlanta Athletic Club, would have been proud of the success Nelson enjoyed but more importantly his gentlemanly comportment.
When he won this event in 1981, it was a validation of the impossible dream. Nelson had been a college dropout which meant that he had little choice in what was next in his life in the late Sixties. As an able bodied young American, his next assignment would be in Viet Nam.
While sloshing through the rice paddies in South Asia, Nelson, who enjoyed a degree of proficiency with all sports, decided that he would follow through on his dream to be a baseball pitcher. Surviving the war and heading back to Marietta with his discharge, he had an opportunity to pitch in front of several professional scouts. He threw out his arm with no alternatives in regard to his next move.
A year later, he went to a driving range with a friend and picked up a golf club for the first time. From that point on, he fashioned one of the most impressive rags to riches stories in sport. He began to practice with the confidence that he could play the game. Ben Hogan’s book, “The Five Fundamentals of Golf,” became his constant companion. Within nine months he broke 70 and turned professional in 1971.
Eight years later he won twice on the PGA tour and finished second on the money list to Tom Watson, but the best was yet to come. He would win the PGA championship twice, but nothing could ever surpass the 1983 U. S. Open. Entering the tournament, there was not a lot to boost his confidence—he arrived at Oakmont ranked down with the poorest putters on the tour. He even considered giving up the game. Nelson came into Open week ranked 171st in putting on the tour.
He opened with 75 and posted a 73 in the second round which put him at six over par on one of the most demanding U. S. Open courses there is. He was seven shots off the lead, not so encouraging. But, hey, this is the U. S. Open. Hang around and you never know what might result.
Here is how he remembered the challenging rough at Oakmont. “It was so deep you couldn’t find your ball. I’d see that rough,” he told Golf Magazine, “and know if I missed the fairway, I’d never hold the green, and if I missed the green, I’d never stop the chip.”
He kept finding the fairways and kept hitting the greens. Additionally, that was one week his putter never failed him. Following a 65 on Saturday, he played well in the final round which was called because of rain. When he returned to the course on Monday morning, he was faced with a four wood shot at the par three 16th hole which ended up at the back of the green 62 feet from the cup. He could make anything from there but nobody could believe the miracle that came his way. He stroked it in for a birdie. That won the U. S. Open for him.”
Nelson, who has 19 Champions Tour victories, won in an era dominated by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino—a quiet champion whose faith is the hallmark of his life.
This is an era of new stars who weren’t born when Larry Nelson played the tour. Their careers might be enhanced if they identified with the heart, class and character with which he played the game.
[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]