My Shot: Larry Nelson
Continued (page 2 of 4)
When I got home, I went to school three nights a week and worked at Lockheed Aircraft 70 hours per week. I had very little free time, but after ruining my arm playing baseball I started going to a driving range. They had these old steel-headed drivers, ugly things made to be indestructible. My only goal was to try to hit the ball over the fence. It was strictly for kicks, and I hit the ball as hard as I could. I had no idea what I was doing because I'd never played a round of golf in my life. After going to the range for months, I got to where I could hit the ball very far, and dead straight, every time. I was a fantastic driver of the ball before I ever played my first round.
My wife, Gayle, knew I wanted to take up "real golf," so for Christmas she bought me a set of Jack Nicklaus irons and woods. I didn't like them because they had leather grips -- the driver I used at the range had a rubber grip. So I exchanged the clubs for a set of aluminum-shafted Doug Sanders models. I then joined Pinetree Country Club, which offered inexpensive junior memberships, and played my first round of golf. I didn't know anybody and played alone a lot. Watching golf on TV and observing other players, I learned, bit by bit. When the club lost its assistant, the head pro, Bert Seagraves, hired me for $67 a week. I'd show up every day at 5:30 a.m. and play with the superintendent before opening the club at 7:30. I got better quickly because I hated losing to him. Within nine months I broke 70, and within two years I was one of the better players in the area. I didn't know how good I was, but apparently the members at Pinetree did. They put up some money and sent me, no strings attached, to Florida to play the mini-tours.
Bert gave me a copy of Ben Hogan's Five Lessons and said, "If you want to learn how to play the game, this is it." I studied it to death, and it did a lot for me. The amazing thing about the book is the section on swing plane. Instructors are still talking about it. To me, swing plane comes down to something very simple that Davis Love Jr. told me early on: "If you stand upright, don't swing flat, and if you set up flat, don't swing upright." That's all you need to know about swing plane. Just make sure your plane matches well with the angle of your upper body at address.
There are very few absolute truths about the golf swing. In fact, there are only two I know of. The first is, "Shots don't lie." That's very important when you're learning the game, because the golf ball tells you exactly what's happening through impact, and you start fixing it from there. The second is, "Keep the club moving down the line, with as much speed as possible." I built my entire game around those two keys, and I recommend them to everybody. If you focus on those keys when you're learning to swing the club, you're going to be a good player. Simple as that.
When I went to Florida, I knew very little about the rules and proper etiquette. In one tournament, I hit my ball down in a hazard. I went in and started picking up rocks, sticks and stuff so I could hit the ball. One of the guys I was playing with stood there, stunned. I started to pick up a leaf and said, "Can I move this leaf?" He stared at me for a minute and said, "If you pick up that leaf, you'll be lying 12."
I had very little success on the mini-tours -- at first. I couldn't beat anybody. The fact that I'd never played out of sand before tells you how green I was. But nobody worked harder than I did. The tournaments were played on Monday and Tuesday. From Wednesday through the following Monday, I practiced every day, often all day long. I was not out there to goof off. My wife was with me, we wanted to start a family, and I was very serious about making a living at this. One of the keys to success is to simply take what you're doing seriously. By the end of the year, I'd won a few tournaments and finished sixth on the money list.
I was a competitive person but not demonstrative, and the stress of Vietnam really made me rein in my emotions more. In Vietnam you had to let events sort of bounce off you to keep your sanity. That temperament is good for golf, to a point. But I found that by never allowing myself to get excited, I was wasting a valuable resource, because emotions can really lift a player if he does it right.
The key to a good golf temperament is to "keep the time short." By that, I mean you look at every shot as an individual episode. After you hit the shot, go ahead and react to it emotionally, but don't dwell on it. Keep the reaction time short and immediately start thinking of the next shot. That's how you keep nerves under control and avoid choking. You'll always play better if you compartmentalize your thinking and keep looking ahead.
When I came on the PGA Tour, Johnny Miller was the best player out there. He was by far the best ball-striker I'd ever seen, and as good as anybody playing today. Johnny had a weak grip, and he went at it very hard through impact. Yet he never turned the ball over, he never hooked it. Remember my saying, "Shots don't lie"? Well, Johnny's ball flight was the way a golf ball was meant to be struck.