BY JK NICKELL
Here’s Larry Nelson on the 10th tee box at Fallen Oak Golf Club outside Biloxi, Mississippi. He’s a hint under 5-foot-9 and still lean at 69, with jade green eyes and a white cap pulled over the hairline a fellow player once affectionately described as “that cue ball up there.”
He’s leaning on his driver, his right forearm draped across the grip of the club, almost like he’s reclining while standing up. Amidst the hive of tournament officials and sponsors buzzing around the tee box, he fades into the background.
It’s an unseasonably hot March afternoon, the opening round of the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, an annual stop on the PGA Tour Champions, known colloquially as the senior tour. Seventy-nine players are here, including some of the biggest names in golf, and one of the leading fan draws this weekend happens to be first up in Larry’s grouping. Tom Kite, in his trademark straw hat and thickset glasses, plants a tee in the ground and steps back for a series of practice swings, a Harrah’s Gulf Coast banner waving behind him. The announcer addresses the gallery that’s gathered three-deep around the tee box. “Please welcome World Golf Hall of Famer Tom Kite!” Cheers erupt, the crowd control official raises a “HUSH Y’ALL” sign, and he lines up his shot. As soon as he makes contact, someone hollers, “Good ball, Tom!” The ball fades toward the rough.
Larry, the last in his group to tee off, steps up and readies for his shot, no-nonsense, taking just one practice swing. “Please welcome World Golf Hall of Famer—” the announcer begins, then pauses, shaking his head, visibly flustered. He frantically searches the pockets of his navy blazer before digging out his lineup card. “Uh, I’m sorry,” he stutters, scanning the list of names. “Larry Nelson.”
Larry turns to the crowd, grins, and tips his cap, eliciting chuckles. Then he pivots back to the ball, smacks it straight down the fairway—outdriving the others—and strolls off. The crowd lingers, watching him march away. He’s one of just four Hall of Famers among the field.
So why do so few people know his name?
Larry could tell a lot by the sound of a bullet. Rounds from carbine rifles whistled as they passed overhead, so he knew he’d met with the Viet Cong. AK-47s, on the other hand, cracked like a whip, signaling a visit with the North Vietnamese Army.
He had touched down at Chu Lai Combat Base in central Vietnam in March 1968, during the throes of the Tet Offensive, and he was promptly told that hundreds of soldiers from his Army regiment had been killed or wounded in the previous 90 days. He was one of the few soldiers who could read a map—as a boy growing up in rural Georgia, he often spent entire days by himself navigating creeks and backwoods—so his infantry squad always ran point. The position was dreaded by some, but Larry preferred it that way. The Viet Cong and NVA typically waited to appraise the size of the entire outfit before opening fire.
As an A-team infantry squad leader, he was responsible for nine men during their nightly jungle ambushes. Their primary mission was to draw fire—thus his familiarity with the sound of bullets—and then they’d call in the artillery. Because of booby traps and snipers, he tended to avoid trails and rice paddy dikes, which often drew the ire of his squad—the jungle was much slower going and rife with land leeches—but he never lost a man.
They’d set off an hour before sunset and hunker down once darkness set in, digging foxholes and staying two to a hole, one person sleeping while the other kept watch. One night, his squad burrowed down 15 yards off a trail, and an entire company marched right by them. For the better part of an hour, Larry stifled the sound of his own breath, terrified that someone in his squad would startle awake and give away their position.
But for the most part, he was more fearful for what was happening back home. During the three months he was stationed in Vietnam, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and seemingly every time a helicopter arrived at base camp to drop off supplies and rations, it also brought more news of protest and unrest. He wrote letters to his wife, Gayle, whom he’d met when he was 5, on the box tops of those C-rations, keeping her abreast of his day-to-day, not giving too many specifics so as not to worry her. In return, she would send Kool-Aid packages to cut the bitter taste of his quinine water.
When his tour ended, he returned home to Acworth, Georgia. He got a job at the local Lockheed Martin factory, working 10-hour shifts seven days a week, and enrolled in three night classes at a junior college. The schedule left him exhausted. One day after work, he staggered out of the concrete tunnel that led to the factory and, with a few hours to kill before class, decided to pull into the driving range across the street. He’d never played golf—always thought it was a “sissy sport”—but he remembered one night during basic training when a buddy raved about the game while they played poker. “He hadn’t shaved for about two weeks and he hadn’t bathed in longer than that and he had an M16, and I didn’t want to tell him what I thought about golf,” Larry once said.
He preferred baseball, but he’d thrown out his arm and needed another outlet. (He was fortunate not to suffer from as much trauma as many of his fellow veterans, but even still: In the months after returning home, while out with a friend, he once lunged to the ground after hearing a loud boom; another time, his wife playfully startled him at home and he had to refrain from reflexively attacking her.) He grabbed a bucket of balls and an aluminum driver, and at first his only aim was to wallop a few over the fence. But he found it therapeutic, the rhythm of the swing and the pure sensation of solid contact and the isolation of it all. He made a habit of it over time, stopping by after a long day at work. It wasn’t long before he was driving the ball farther than the others on the range, and straighter, too.
It was still another year before he played with any seriousness—or with any club other than a driver. He quit Lockheed to finish school, and to fill his free time every day until his wife got home from work, he purchased a discount membership at nearby Pinetree Country Club. He was nearly 23. When Larry was a kid, he would often spend time by himself, seeking out new fishing holes or lying in a field of sage for hours and gazing at the clouds passing overhead. The solitary nature of golf suited him, and he was rewarded with steady improvement. “I think that is what’s good about the game, whether you’re coming back out of a war zone or an office,” he says. “No matter how many people are out there, it’s still just you, the golf club, and the golf ball, trying to get it where you want it to go.”
The club pro, Bert Seagraves, recommended he pick up a copy of Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Larry studied the book and, with occasional tips from Bert, shot under par within a year. Other members began taking notice. One of them, Chet Austin, never forgot the first time he saw Larry and his wife at the course. “He and Gayle came driving up to the tee,” Austin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. “And when I saw him hit the ball as far as he could for a man his size, I thought, Woooo-wee. That got my attention.”
Bert brought him on as an assistant in 1970, which meant that, although Larry spent more time at the course, he only had limited windows of practice time. He often played at dawn before the members arrived, and in the afternoons, he would hit balls out of a ditch in the driving range using one arm. After a few years, he was considering taking another job because he couldn’t support a family on his assistant’s salary. Instead, a group of five Pinetree members, including Chet Austin, pooled together enough money ($10,000) to send him to Tampa, Florida, to play the professional mini-tours. Surprised, he went home and told Gayle. She was supportive, but Larry was hesitant. He’d seen professional players come through Pinetree every now and then, and he was enamored with them, but the notion of playing golf for a living still seemed far-fetched. Then he talked to Bert. “You’ve got to do this,” Bert told him, “because if you don’t, you’ll always regret it.”
In the fall of 1972, they packed all their belongings into a brown Chevy Monte Carlo and drove to Tampa. Among the 120 players on the mini-tour, some were college All-Americans. Larry had yet to play an actual tournament. People were baffled to learn that he hadn’t competed in high school or college, but he didn’t play well enough early on that anyone was impressed by that fact. During his first few tournaments, he committed several violations because he didn’t know the rules. Once, after hitting his ball into a hazard, he started removing leaves and sticks, and then asked another guy in his group whether it’d be a penalty if the ball moved. “You’ve moved so many things already, you’re lying 12,” he told Larry, incredulous.
Leading up to the 1973 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament—or Q-School, as golf’s most notoriously pressure-filled event is known—all the hype surrounded a young player named Ben Crenshaw, who’d won three national championships at the University of Texas and had already landed on the covers of several golf magazines. While Crenshaw dominated the tournament (he would go on to win his first event immediately afterward), nobody paid much attention to the guy who’d only started playing 16 months earlier. To earn his PGA Tour card, Larry needed to finish in the top 25; otherwise, he’d have to wait to try again next year. Yet nerves never really got to him. Most of the others had dreamed about this opportunity since they were young; Larry thought it just seemed like a great way to make a living. On his final hole, needing par to tie for 22nd, he lofted an 8-iron over the pond fronting the green, and then calmly two-putted. Just a few years after hitting that aluminum driver for the first time, he became one of two people to ever qualify for the PGA Tour after picking up the game in their 20s.
In team sports, there are arguments to be had over how to define individual success, about what it means to be great. When athletes must rely on the teammates surrounding them, wins and losses are inarguably impacted by significant forces outside of their control. Still, as a sports-obsessed culture, we seem to have reached a consensus that greatness is not only defined by wins and losses, but by championships.
In golf, there is little debate to be had. Part of the game’s magnetism is the black-and-white clarity of its individual storylines. The year that Larry qualified for the PGA Tour, Arnold Palmer won his 62nd and final PGA tournament; seven of his wins were major championships. Jack Nicklaus retired with 73 PGA Tour wins, 18 of which were majors. The reason that Nicklaus’ anointment as the greatest of all time goes unchallenged has little to do with those 11 extra wins overall and everything to do with his performance in the majors.
For his first few years on tour, Larry defined success by whether he made enough money to provide for his family. His first 10 tournaments in 1974, the year after qualifying for the tour, he didn’t make a single cut, thus failing to earn a penny of prize money. At the time, only a few players earned sponsorships, and everyone had to pay for their own rental car, lunch at the clubhouse, and even golf balls at the driving range. He was thrilled to be sharing a locker room with Nicklaus and Palmer, but with no winnings to his name and travel costs stacking up, the financial reality was self-evident.
His 11th tournament, though, he managed an eighth-place finish, and a check arrived in the amount of $3,800—just $300 more than he needed to retain his PGA card for the next year. For a few years, he managed to continue playing golf for a living. In 1978, however, he revamped his practice routine—he was a natural off the tee box and with his irons, but his short game was dreadful—to emphasize chipping, bunker play, and putting. The next year he won two tournaments, finished second on the money list, and earned one of 12 coveted spots in the Ryder Cup, the biennial team competition between Europe and the United States. The international rivalry creates a singular intensity of pressure, and its drama stems from the possibility that even the steadiest players are prone to faltering. Larry thrived, becoming the only player to go 5-0 in Ryder Cup history. “Having to make a 15-foot putt, it’s not like having someone shoot at you,” he says. “It’s not life or death, so you can approach it a lot differently.”
Still, he didn’t come close to claiming a major victory until the 1981 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, 45 minutes from his home. He was 33 at the time, and five weeks earlier, he was struggling with a bad back and playing so poorly that he took a month off and spent time fishing with his sons, Drew, 4, and Josh, 2. He got off to a disastrous start, but a rain delay offered the chance to fix his putting; after three rounds, he captured a four-shot lead. Most any player will tell you that holding a lead in a major makes for a torturous Saturday evening and Sunday morning—the stress has led to many legendary final round collapses. As for Larry, he drove home and played soccer with Drew.
Newspaper columnists went on to complain that his Sunday round lacked drama—Larry described it at the time as “aggressively conservative.” On the 18th hole, still ahead by four strokes, he actually took the time to count in his head how many times he could hit into the pond and still win. There was no need. A 6-iron left him 20 feet from the hole, and after a steady two-putt, he tipped his Amana hat (the appliance company paid him $50 a week to wear it) to the crowd. He hugged Gayle and then threw his Hogan brand golf ball into the gallery. Finally, he embraced his first teacher, Bert Seagraves, who’d driven in to watch.
“I’m about as excited as I’ve ever been in my life,” he told a Washington Post reporter. And then, when asked how he planned to celebrate, Larry responded with characteristic understatement, “I’m going [to] take a hot bath.”
It was a Monday morning in 1983 when Larry stepped onto the 16th green at Oakmont Country Club. Rain had delayed the final round of the U.S. Open, and so he and Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros returned the next day to finish the remaining three holes. The night before, in addition to playing Pong on the Atari with his sons, Larry had mapped out every shot he was going to hit, but there was no accounting for this: a 62-foot putt on the fastest green he’d ever played.
Once again, he was playing poorly coming into the tournament, and when he flew in to practice the course on Monday, his clubs didn’t arrive with him. He borrowed a putter from the clubhouse and stayed on the putting green instead. He’d always loathed practicing putting, but here it paid off. When that 62-foot putt rolled in for birdie, Larry, in a rare display of emotion, ran after it. Roars from the crowd could be heard on the opposite side of the course. Watson bogeyed the next hole, and Larry captured the U.S. Open by one stroke.
His biggest endorsement contract, $6,000, was for playing Ben Hogan Golf Equipment clubs, and after that season—he’d won two majors and was still undefeated in the Ryder Cup—his contract was cut in half. There was never an explanation.
After winning his first major, people were hesitant to celebrate him. “It was like it was so unusual, people didn’t embrace it,” he says. Winning his second didn’t seem to change the perception. Neither did his third.
In the summer of ’87, on the hottest Aug. 9 in the history of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Larry beat Lanny Wadkins in a sudden death playoff for the PGA Championship. He started the day three strokes back, but the rest of the field faltered in the sultry spell. (When a reporter later asked how he was able to handle the heat, Larry shrugged. “Well, I guess it was hotter in Vietnam.”) When his winning putt dropped, the diminished crowd cheered out of relief as much as excitement.
But the achievement was momentous. He joined Nicklaus, Watson, and Ballesteros as the only players to win three major championships in the ’80s. Today, there are only two active American players on the PGA Tour that have won more than two majors. Larry won more than Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, and Greg Norman. “You win three, you’re a golfer not for this year or this decade but for the ages,” columnist Mark Bradley wrote afterward in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Larry Nelson, the man from Marietta, has won three. He got his third Sunday, winning the PGA. Maybe this time somebody will notice.”
To celebrate, Larry took his family to Wendy’s.
It has been exactly 30 years since Larry accomplished that remarkable feat, and still it seems that no one has noticed.
Perhaps corporations were wary of selling his story because Vietnam was a politically disastrous war. “If it had been today, I would’ve been America’s hero,” Larry says.
Perhaps the traditional golf powers were reticent to celebrate him for fear he confirmed what many already think when they turn on the tube and watch these guys whacking a little white ball across a finely pruned field: I could do that. Larry picked up a club and actually did it.
Or perhaps it was simply bad timing. For much of the ’80s and well into the ’90s, golf’s senior tour attracted much larger crowds than the PGA Tour. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer remained the game’s biggest names, and they drew in the majority of golf’s relatively small viewership. As Larry approached 50, it appeared he might finally get his due. He’d now been playing for nearly three decades, and his relative youth was advantageous. In anticipation, companies started approaching him with big endorsement deals.
But in 1997, the year of his 50th birthday—the same year he was passed over as Ryder Cup captain despite being promised the job—he happened to be paired in a tournament with a player named Tiger Woods, who was kicking off his rookie season. Larry had competed against young, hugely hyped players before, but this was a different sort of phenomenon—it was the largest crowd he’d ever seen. Larry would go on to win player of the year on the Champions Tour, but by the time of his birthday that fall, the economics of golf had been transformed. The PGA Tour became exponentially more lucrative, and as for the Champions Tour, if Tiger wasn’t on, people simply didn’t tune in.
Larry turns 70 next month. He still plays roughly 10 tournaments a year, and his sons caddy for him whenever they can. He’s no threat to win, but he likes to challenge himself—he still aims to finish in the top 10 once a year. And he recently invented a tool to practice swing mechanics at home without clubs—no experience required, of course.
During his World Golf Hall of Fame induction speech in 2006, he told a story about his dad, who had passed away the year before. “My father never played golf until he was 50,” Larry told the crowd. “One year I had played in the Atlanta Classic and missed the cut by 10 shots, and we were driving home. My dad said, ‘Son, I don’t know much about golf, but if I were you, I’d try to get it closer to where those flags are.’”
Sitting in the front row were Nicklaus and Palmer, there to welcome him into golf’s most exclusive club. But even more meaningful were the two airplanes filled with family and friends, including Bert Seagraves, who traveled in for the ceremony. For his display case, Larry chose to include the field jacket he wore as a 140-pound sergeant in Vietnam in addition to his Bible and photos of loved ones.
At the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in Biloxi this March, he went out of his way to make sure the scorekeepers had plenty of water. He talked to any fans following his group to ensure they were having a good day. When everyone else walked by a turtle inching across a cart path, Larry paused. “Hey, big boy,” he said, picking him up and carrying him over to a stream.
On the next to last hole, talking to his son Drew about his struggles on the back nine, he paused and grinned. “Just nervous I guess. Hadn’t been doing this long enough.”