By Rex Hoggard
Larry Nelson rocks forward in his chair and narrows his pale, blue eyes as if the epiphany just swept over him. Truth is, he says, he’d never planned on being a professional golfer. As Hall of Fame careers go, Nelson took something of a serpentine path to golf’s most coveted locker room.
“The whole time I was in the service I actually wanted to play baseball,” Nelson said.
Throughout his youth in rural Georgia, and later during a tour of duty in the steamy jungles of Vietnam, it was baseball, not golf, that occupied Nelson’s thoughts and gave him hope.
Nelson, a youngish-looking 59 despite a hairline that’s in full retreat, was a self-described control pitcher – more Greg Maddux than Randy Johnson – who possessed pinpoint accuracy and a baffling curve ball that could be thrown three different ways.
But in 1969, when he returned home from Vietnam, Nelson knew his arm wasn’t strong enough and his prospects too farfetched to make it as a Major League hurler.
He had a young wife to support and a college degree in chemical engineering to pursue. He also had sold the only set of golf clubs he’d ever owned (along with a fishing pole) for $129 shortly after marrying his wife, Gayle, and moving to Fort Hood, Texas.
So golf, at least initially, was little more than a distraction. A worthwhile endeavor to fill time between classes.
But the game grew on Nelson and he blossomed into a golf shop rat at Pinetree Country Club in Kennesaw, Ga., at once befriending and badgering the club’s head pro Bert Seagraves.
For his part, Seagraves said it was simply a matter of pointing his eager pupil in the right direction. He hired Nelson as an assistant pro at Pinetree, and in 1971 handed him a copy of Ben Hogan’s “The Five Fundamentals of Golf.” Nelson was 24.
“He’s one of those people who give teachers good reputations,” Seagraves said. “You tell him one time and that’s all you had to say. He’s a good player because of what he has inside.”
For the better part of two decades, Nelson was one of the PGA Tour’s top players. He also was something of the cellophane pro. Fearless and productive inside the game’s ropes, he was strangely overlooked by the media and fans.
Nelson’s resume is a study in consistency. Following a lean start to his career, which included time on the Florida mini-tours before earning his PGA Tour card at Q-School in 1973, Nelson won three majors (1981 PGA Championship, ’83 U.S. Open, ’87 PGA), collected 10 Tour titles and played on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams. He has nearly doubled his victory total on the Champions Tour (19), and yet he was long ago brushed aside as a potential Ryder Cup captain and needed 11 attempts on the ballot to gain his spot on the podium Oct. 30 in St. Augustine, Fla.
“You always wondered if you were going to get enough votes,” Nelson said. “It seems last year would have been a good time. When it didn’t happen, I thought I could come in second every year. There was always a question.”
Some of Nelson’s low Q rating was of his own making. He neither shunned nor sought the spotlight, and perhaps deferred to the more vocal players of his generation – Tom Watson, Fuzzy Zoeller and Lanny Wadkins – to make the headlines while he happily and almost seamlessly bounced between his career and his family.
Even his signature triumphs lacked the type of sizzle that separates the classics from mere victories. His ’83 U.S. Open victory at Oakmont came on a Monday in front of only a handful of spectators, while one of his PGA titles occurred on a sun-scorched pedestrian venue (’87 at PGA National) and the other was virtually void of any late Sunday drama (’81 at Atlanta Athletic Club).
“He’s never been into blowing his own horn. He does just what is demanded of him and that’s all,” Seagraves said.
It’s a telling sign that Nelson counts among his greatest accomplishments on the golf course the 1981 Ryder Cup at Walton Heath in England, an 181⁄2-91⁄2 American rout.
“Standing in the locker room with these guys, (Raymond) Floyd and (Lee) Trevino . . . probably the greatest Ryder Cup team ever, was a wonderful experience,” said Nelson, who compiled a 9-3-1 Ryder Cup record. “Fifteen years earlier, I didn’t even know the game. It was just amazing to me to stand in there and call these guys friends, partners, captains. Very much the highlight of my golf career.”
Fittingly, the items Nelson has chosen to put in his Hall of Fame locker offer the most insightful glimpse into the life of golf’s most nondescript three-time major champion.
Along with a yardage book from Atlanta Athletic Club – site of Nelson’s signature victory at the ’81 PGA – and a hat from a golf course he designed, will be a Bible and his late father’s Ping B-62 putter.
“It will be very emotional,” Nelson said of the induction ceremony. “It’s not about being honored, but how and who got me there. It’s not the moment that will be emotional, but instead it will be all the time leading up to that moment that’s going to be relived and smashed into about 10 minutes.”