Commentary

Late bloomer Nelson rose through ranks

Originally Published: November 11, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

His story has been as underplayed as it is remarkable, and ranking the accomplishments in his life as a golfer makes for a good argument.

Larry Nelson never shot a score as high as 100 since taking up golf, which he did not do until age 21.

[+] EnlargeLarry Nelson
Brian Morgan/Getty ImagesIn terms of qualifications for the job, Larry Nelson seems like a no-brainer: Three major champions (including two PGAs), a stellar Ryder Cup record and a backstory that seems to fit like a glove with the PGA of America's priorities.

Within three years of first hitting balls, Nelson earned his PGA Tour card -- and within nine years won a tournament.

He did all of this after being drafted into the U.S. Army and serving in Vietnam, then went on to win the U.S. Open, one of three major championships in a Hall of Fame career.

All these years later, it remains a mystery why his 1983 U.S. Open victory -- which occurred a little more than a decade after he returned from combat in southeast Asia -- was not viewed as a great American sporting achievement.

"Had it been today, it probably would have been one of the more celebrated events in history," Nelson, 62, said in a recent interview. "Not until the Iraqi war did people start looking at the guys who served in Vietnam as something they did for their country. There was such division then. We didn't get any credit. There were a lot of things going on, a different attitude. And it was almost like I wasn't supposed to win. It was not the way it was supposed to be."

Nelson tells his story without a trace of bitterness. That low-key demeanor helped him win 10 times on the PGA Tour and earn another 19 Champions Tour victories; he also compiled a 9-3-1 Ryder Cup record in three appearances.

"He's very typical of our servicemen and women; he never spoke of any of his experiences," said Ben Crenshaw, who played with and against Nelson for years. "Very humble. Very genuine. But a fierce competitor. His outside countenance never showed that."

Crenshaw recalled a story from the 1981 Ryder Cup -- which featured a star-filled U.S. team composed of players such as Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and the new PGA champion, Nelson.

"Dave Marr was our captain at Walton Heath in England, and Dave referred to him [Nelson] as our 'baby-faced chicken killer. They don't want to tussle with him.'"

Sure enough, Nelson went 4-0 in that Ryder Cup.

But when he won the U.S. Open two years later, his soft-spoken, quiet nature probably didn't help his cause. Neither did a Monday finish at Oakmont and knocking off Watson, who was bidding for a second straight U.S. Open title.


Nelson figures that the fierce opposition to the Vietnam War had something to do with why service to his country followed by his golf accomplishments -- having never played junior golf -- did not get the kind of attention you would expect.

His original games of choice were baseball and basketball, and Nelson earned a scholarship to an institute that was part of Georgia Tech. But after two quarters, Nelson left to take a job and earn some money, with the intention of returning to school in the fall.

"That's when I got my draft notice," he said.

The year was 1966, and Nelson was just 10 days shy of his 19th birthday -- and 10 days later he was headed from his Marietta, Ga., home to Fort Benning, Ga., followed by an 18-month stint in Fort Hood, Texas.

"My feelings were it was kind of inevitable that I would probably get drafted," Nelson said. "It seemed like they were taking everyone who was 19, especially in our area. … I was actually registered to go back to school in the fall when I got my draft notice and probably could have gotten out of it but decided it was probably too hard to fight and it was going to happen anyway. And so I went on."

With just six months left in his commitment, Nelson was sent to Vietnam, where he spent 90 days.

"I don't think you walk around in fear all the time, but you are always aware that bad things can happen," Nelson said. "Everybody who is in combat … you pretty much get shot at every day, whether it be snipers or whatever. The nights were always difficult. You were always excited about seeing the sun come up. You try to take as much precaution as possible, but you never know. There are just certain things you can't take precautions about."

While in the army, Nelson met Ken Hummel. They went through basic training together and were deployed to Vietnam, although to different areas. Their friendship proved to be huge to Nelson's future.

Hummel was a golfer; Nelson had never played the game.

"All of the conversations we had kind of made me curious [about golf]," Nelson said. "I kept telling people before I thought it was kind of a sissy sport. Not understanding what the game was about.

"[Hummel] was a big guy, a burly guy, not a guy I expected to play golf. The combination of what he had told me and having plenty of time [after returning from Vietnam] led to golf."


Nelson had married his wife, Gayle, nine months before leaving for Vietnam. When he returned in 1968, Nelson took a job as an illustrator for Lockheed Aircraft Corp. while attending college at night.

For about a year, Nelson worked seven days a week and tried to fit in school. "It didn't take long for the newness of being home to wear off," he said.

Concerned about his welfare, Nelson's in-laws decided to help him financially while he finished school so he would not have to work so many hours.

All of a sudden, Nelson had free time. And he turned to golf.

Pinetree Country Club was nearby, and "I would hang around until 6 when my wife got done with work."

Nelson picked up Ben Hogan's book "Five Lessons." "Each one of the fundamentals I did until I could go to the next one and didn't have to think about it anymore," he said.

The year was 1970, and he was 22 years old.

For about two years, Nelson spent time playing and practicing at Pinetree, and he became an assistant pro before a group of members noticed potential, put together some money and sent Nelson to Florida to give the mini-tours a shot.

By 1973, he was heading to the PGA Tour's qualifying tournament known as Q-school. Crenshaw, who had won three NCAA titles at Texas, was the easy winner, but Nelson earned one of the 23 spots available by finishing tied for 21st.

[+] EnlargeLarry Nelson
David Cannon/Getty ImagesIn his career, unheralded Larry Nelson had a combined 9-3-1 record in three Ryder Cup appearances. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006.

"There are only two other guys I'm aware of who took up the game that late [and had success]," Crenshaw said. "One was Calvin Peete [a 12-time PGA Tour winner], and the other was Walter J. Travis, who took up the game at 35 and within two years won the [1900] U.S. Amateur. It's just incredible.

"Larry always had a fantastic tempo. He swung long, lazy and smooth. He had a great attitude and great hand-eye coordination."

Back then, earning a tour card simply meant you had the right to qualify on Mondays for a spot in the field. But Nelson had enough success that he never had to return to Q-school. In 1979, at age 31, he won his first two career tournaments, the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary Classic and the Western Open.

Nelson acknowledges that his path is unlikely to be followed.

"I think it would be very difficult at this point in time," he said. "There are so many good players, and it's just so much more difficult at certain levels. I don't know that there are as many great players now as when we played, but there were not as many guys [playing]. Then, if you didn't qualify for the tour, you had to find something to do. There were a couple of mini-tours, but there wasn't the Hooters Tour and the Nationwide Tour. Now, there are so many places to play. Then, the number of people you had to beat to get your tour card was far fewer."


There is a great golf trivia question: Name the four golfers who won more than two major championships in the 1980s.

Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and …

Larry Nelson.

"You could name three, but you couldn't name the fourth," Nelson quipped.

Nelson won the 1981 and 1987 PGA Championships (the latter in a playoff over Lanny Wadkins) and the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, shooting a final-round 67 to edge Watson by a stroke.

"But you also had other guys who had won multiple majors," Nelson said. "Floyd, Irwin, Trevino, Miller. Gary Player was still playing a lot at that time. Those were the names who were playing. I guess three [majors] didn't seem like as many as 18 or nine or eight. But how many American players today have won three majors?"

Among those who are active, only Tiger Woods (14) and Phil Mickelson (three) have as many majors as Nelson.

"Throughout my 30s, I was probably as good as anybody tee to green," Nelson said.

He went on to add 19 Champions Tour titles, with his best year coming in 2000, when he topped the money list with more than $2.7 million and won six times. This year, Nelson played 16 times and earned two top-10s.

In 2006, Nelson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and his old Army buddy Hummel -- the guy who got Nelson thinking about golf -- was one of the proud attendees.

"I was raised by a father who was very proud of his military service," Nelson said. "I came out of an era where we felt obligated. It was part of our obligation as American citizens, if we were needed. There were no questions. That was our responsibility.

"I was proud of my service and still am. I know both of my sons, in some respects, they wish they could have gone. At this point, it's something, if I had my way about it, I think everybody should serve for two years like they do in some other countries. It's a great way to mature. There is a lot missed when someone doesn't serve his country.

"The freedom that we have doesn't seem as precious."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com