December 10, 2012

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.

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.

At Hilton Head one year, I had a three-shot lead after 54 holes. That night I made the mistake of watching a replay of the TV telecast, which they would pipe around the island. I noticed something at the top of my backswing, and even though I was playing great I decided to make a little change. Well, I shot 76 the next day and got beat. I watched myself only during the off-season after that.

Shortly before the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, I paid a visit to Ben Hogan. I played Ben Hogan equipment and over the years had developed a good friendship with him. I was visiting Ben to pick his brain about playing Oakmont, because he'd won the Open there in 1953. I said, "Ben, those greens are so firm I'd think you'd have to hit the ball high to do well there. You were a low-ball hitter, so how did you do it?" Well, Ben took exception to my calling him a low-ball hitter. He said, "I could hit the ball high when I wanted to, Larry. You want me to show you how?" So he takes me out to the practice range and taught me how to hit the ball high. The secret, he said, was to cup your left wrist more at the top of the backswing. That opened the clubface and made it easier to maintain loft through impact. He told me not to change anything else, to go ahead and release the club through impact the same way. Well, I did what he said. I worked on playing with that cupped-left-wrist position very hard, and during the Open I hit a high, soft fade all week. It worked, and I did win the championship. So I owe a lot of that to my friend, Ben Hogan.

At that '83 Open, I got on the first tee of the opening round, looked down the fairway, and all I saw was thick rough and skinny fairways. The fairways were so narrow, it just looked impossible. I could feel myself tensing up, and sure enough, I shot 75. The second round I thought, To heck with this; I'm not gonna look at those fairways anymore. So I started taking one look at the fairway and then focusing on a spot eight inches in front of my ball. That took some of the pressure off, and I shot 73. The third round, still spot-aiming everything, I shot 65. Now I had my confidence back, and I did look down the fairways the last round. I shot 67 and beat Tom Watson by one.

It was one of the few U.S. Opens where rain delayed play on Sunday enough so that we had to finish on Monday. I had three holes to play and was tied with Watson. On the 16th hole [a par 3] Monday morning, I hit my tee shot 60 feet from the hole. It was my first putt of the day -- these were Oakmont greens -- and I'm telling you, there are easier situations to be in. But I got the speed right, and by the time the ball got 12 feet from the hole, I started running because I knew it was going in. Oakmont's greens were that perfect, even then.

Watson came to 18 needing a birdie to tie me. Tom was over the green with his second shot, and his chip went about 45 feet past the hole. I was standing there with Gayle, and Tom proceeds to knock in the 45-footer for par. The crowd went wild, and Gayle thought that he had, in fact, tied me. She looked like she was going to get sick. When I gave her a pat and said, "It's OK; I still won," the look of relief on her face was priceless.

The 1987 PGA Championship at PGA National is remembered for the heat. The heat index was 105, spectators were passing out, and the greens were dying. They were so dead the PGA painted them an ugly off-green so they would look like greens on TV. Nobody could make a putt on them, which was good for me because bad greens favor bad putters. Heck, on the last day, I went to the practice green before the round with a Ping Anser and a rear-shafted model and just happened to choose the right one, the Anser. The rough was outrageously tall Bermuda; you truly could only chop the ball out, and that favored me, too, because I'm a straight driver. I was in the zone; they say there was a girl in a bikini out on a floating scoreboard in the lake by the 18th green the first day, but I never saw her. That's focus! I beat Lanny Wadkins in a playoff. Some people say it was the worst PGA in history, but I have very fond memories of it.

It was very difficult to earn praise from my father. In one high school basketball game I scored 32 points in the first half. The coach sat me the second half, but when the game was over and I came out of the locker room, there was my dad. This is it, I thought. He has to say something positive this time. He walked up to me and said, "You would have scored 34 if you hadn't missed that layup." I gritted my teeth at the time, but you know, it was a good thing. There was no question that he loved me and was my biggest supporter. His holding back praise made me much more determined and focused; I was going to get a compliment out of him if it killed me. When I was grown, he finally became more free with praise, and I knew he'd withheld it to make me a better person.

I realize I've never been a colorful player, but I can't help it. It goes back to my parents and our being from the South. My dad drilled into me that you should never be boastful. My mom always said I should speak only when spoken to, and if you can't say anything nice about somebody, don't say anything at all. Also, I was told to address every adult who moves as Sir or Ma'am. With that, I couldn't try to be something I wasn't. But I was comfortable with myself. And for what it's worth, my children and even my grandchildren still refer to people older than them as Sir or Ma'am.

I played in three Ryder Cups and was 9-0 heading into my last one in 1987, where I didn't play well. The highlight was beating Seve Ballesteros four times at The Greenbrier in 1979. I teamed with Lanny, and we beat Seve and Antonio Garrido on Friday, and we beat them again on Saturday morning. Then we drew them a third time in the afternoon. They didn't have a chance. We were nine under after eight holes, and Seve was beside himself. We beat them, 5 and 4. Amazingly, I drew Seve in the singles and beat him again. I remember us playing a par 5 with a very deep fairway bunker. My drive stopped right next to that bunker, so I had to stand in the bunker and gouge it out. I still had 215 yards for my third shot. Seve was way past me on the drive and in the fairway, and he was looking at a sure win. Well, he blows it over the green, and I hit a 4-wood stiff for birdie. Seve didn't get up and down, and I won the hole. I closed him out on 16. It was that kind of week.

I never did captain a Ryder Cup team, and I have to say, it hurts. Before the PGA of America announced who the 1995 team captain would be, it was tacitly understood that I would captain the '95 team at Oak Hill and Lanny would captain the 1997 team at Valderrama. But then Lanny came up with an inspired idea: He should captain the '95 team, and I should be moved back to captaining in '97 so that I could go up against Seve, who would captain the Europeans and whom I'd had so much success against as a player. I thought that was a neat idea, and Lanny did captain in '95. Fast forward a year or so later. I was in Japan, when I got a call from my agent. Tom Kite had been named U.S. Ryder Cup captain for 1997. That really did hurt, because I wasn't privy to how my being bypassed came about. It's a very mysterious process, similar, I think, to how the Pope is chosen. I'm a non-confrontational person and didn't challenge it in any way -- not that it would have helped. But the way the episode transpired still hurts. I'm sorry I never got the chance, and now it's probably too late for it to ever happen.

Tom Kite's wife, Christy, told me that when Tom showed up to play in a regular tour event a couple of years ago, some of the young players didn't know who he was. That's kind of funny, if you're looking for something to tease Tom about. But it's kind of sad, too, that there are golfers who don't recognize a U.S. Open champion who also captained the Ryder Cup team less than 10 years earlier.

I was at a tournament recently. Tiger came in with his security people, and Vijay had his. People were screaming their names and closing in on them; it was a rock-star atmosphere. Then I went to see Nicklaus and Palmer. One is the greatest player of all time, the other the most popular. They had no security, just them and their caddies. They never did. It was the same thing with Muhammad Ali, and no athlete was bigger than he was. All this security today, is it because there are a lot more crazies now? Is our society worse than it used to be? Could it be that the players create this hysteria by being more aloof and inaccessible? I really don't know the answer, but it sure is an interesting question.

Jack and Arnold weren't always pleased with tour policy, and their power was such that they could have influenced the policy board to suit their own interests. Certainly they made their voices heard, but they never made demands to suit their interests specifically. They felt a responsibility for the future. They exercised maybe the highest principle in golf, which is putting the game before the individual. The overwhelming majority of players today have the same ethic as everyone else in pro sports and the business world, which is to push for what will serve them individually.

After having only medium success my first years on tour, it dawned on me that I needed to play golf with more inspiration. I was too flat-line out there. I thought if I could start enjoying the good shots I hit, it would help me and I'd have more fun. So, I took the lid off my emotions -- for me. I'm not sure anybody else noticed. But I did break a putter on the Champions Tour once. I leaned on it, and it snapped. I'd like to say I lost my temper a bit, but the truth is, it had a bad shaft.