My Shot: Larry Nelson
Twenty-five years after winning the U.S. Open (and 40 years after leaving Vietnam), Mr. Low-Key shares his secrets
I was a bad putter for all of my 25 years on the PGA Tour. My bunker play was pathetic; I never seemed to get up and down. And from 100 yards and in, I was a terrible wedge player. I know it's all relative, but I truly was awful in those areas. So how did I win three majors? Well, I was a straight driver, and I was one of the better middle- and long-iron players. If you hit the fairways and the greens, it's pretty much impossible to score badly.
I'm one of the few people who made it to the tour after taking up the game at age 21. In fact, Calvin Peete might be the only other guy like that. Neither of us were very good putters, because when you take up the game as an adult there's a tendency to be mechanical. Kids aren't mechanical at all. They learn to putt and chip naturally. I really fought to overcome that, and only after I joined the Champions Tour did I become more natural. I've won 19 times as a senior because I finally learned how to putt.
I got drafted into the Army in September 1966, 10 days after my 19th birthday. I'd quit college just long enough to make a little money, but that made me eligible for the draft, and they grabbed me. For various reasons, I didn't get sent to Vietnam until March of 1968. I had only six months left to serve, but that wasn't of much comfort. When I got there, I found out our regiment had lost close to 300 people, killed or wounded, in the previous 90 days. It was a tough time to be in Vietnam.
I was an infantry A-team leader. That meant I was responsible for my squad of 10 guys. We were in and out of the field a lot, pulling ambushes, doing search-and-destroy missions, ordinary patrols and so on. It was during the Tet Offensive, and the area was fairly active. When we were assigned to do an ambush, we'd head out before it got dark and move along trails, rice paddies or open land, pick a spot and settle down and wait for the enemy. We never moved at night, whereas the North Vietnamese seemed to favor that time. If you moved, there was a chance you'd be shot at by your own side.
When we were on a patrol and moved the whole platoon, I always wanted my squad to take point. Meaning, be at the front of a patrol. In the movie "Platoon" there's a scene where a guy is complaining that he has to take point. I never thought that scene made sense. I thought point was the safest place to be in most cases because the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and Viet Cong in our area often operated in small groups. If there were only a few of them, they'd rarely open fire on the guys walking point, because they wanted to see how big your outfit was first. They'd wait for the guys in the lead to go by, get a good appraisal of your troop strength, and then let you have it.
Nobody was supposed to sleep when we hunkered down at night. A guy or two might drift off accidentally, but the idea was to stay awake and be alert. One night, everybody in the squad fell asleep except me. I didn't notice because I was on the far end of our squad. And here came a large group of NVA regulars. It was probably an entire company, walking 25 feet away. When I saw all our guys were asleep, I was terrified. I mean, I was more scared than at any time during my tour. The NVA were making a lot of noise, and if one of our guys woke up and started shooting or otherwise drew attention to us, that would have been it. We would have been wiped out, no question about it. I sat there, frozen, praying nobody would wake up. When the NVA moved through, I woke our guys up. And the next day you better believe I chewed them out.
Although we were on ambush the night that happened, none of our superiors got mad that we hadn't engaged the enemy. One of the strangest things about that war was, nobody got angry at things like that. Everybody went over there with the idea that you wanted to come back home. We went over because we loved our country and were asked to do it as members of our free society. A lot of us didn't agree with the war and were disappointed almost daily with things that happened there, but we did what we were told and did whatever else we could. There were guys who actually liked it there, guys who were real gung-ho. I had a guy like that in my squad, a man from Kentucky who carried a sawed-off shotgun when we went on patrols. But most of us just wanted to come home.
Our guys in Iraq are in a situation similar to what we had in Vietnam -- they aren't always sure who the bad guys are. There's a lot of stress associated with that. We were in a firefight once, and when it was over we came across a dead enemy soldier who we'd all seen on a daily basis in the village near where we were. The sense of vulnerability, the distrust, takes a toll on you.
Instead of spending six months in Vietnam, I was there less than three months. See, I had applied to go back to school, and there was a chance you could get home early. One day I got a letter saying my application had been approved. Suddenly I had only 11 days left to go, and I didn't want any more of the jungles and rice paddies. I asked the captain if I could spend my last days doing anything that needed to be done around base camp. He agreed, and, boy, was I relieved. In no time at all I was back in the States.