It's time to give due to Larry Nelson, the greatest golfer no one knows
OAKMONT, Pa. – Anybody seen Larry Nelson? The greatest golfer who ever walked the point of his infantry company in a Vietnam jungle – and the only one who ever won three major professional championships, including the 1983 U.S. Open here – is also the greatest golfer no one knows. Figuring he might be on the grounds as a past champion, I asked a media official, “Do you know, is Larry Nelson on the grounds?”
Here a cloud of puzzlement moved across the official’s eyes.
Then he said, “Who does he work for?”
For a couple hours, I searched. Players locker room. Guest services. Hospitality. Practice range. Phone calls to former agents. A TV guy from Atlanta, once Nelson’s home, said, “I played at the Metropolitan Club in Atlanta when he owned it, and I’m wearing a Metropolitan cap right now, just like one he wore, maybe, here in ’83.”
Nice, but got a phone number? Nope.
Dan Jenkins remembers a Monday in ’83. Of course he does. The greatest golf writer dead, alive or Texan, Jenkins remembers everything that ought to be typed out and read. “Rain on Sunday,” he said. “Nelson, Seve, and Watson were finishing Monday. Just as we arrived, there’s this huge roar, and we asked, ‘You think Seve? Or Watson?' Damned if it wasn’t Nelson.”
The little guy had run in a putt from downtown – 62 feet – on the 16th to catch Watson. When Watson bogeyed the 17th and failed to birdie the last, Nelson won the Open by a shot. For those who yet may think it was really something for Larry Nelson, of all invisible people, to stare down Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson, my colleague at Golf Digest, Guy Yocom, has this to say:
“He walked through the Viet Cong. He’s going to be afraid of Seve?”
Yocom once did an interview with Nelson, part of his extraordinary “My Shot” sessions, in which Nelson described his three months of combat in Vietnam. Nelson tried to persuade Yocom that walking the point, being the first man to contact the enemy, is really the safest place because you can wait in hiding as the enemy walks by. (No sale to Yocom, nor to me.) In any case, Nelson got out of there alive and at age 21 -- no way to believe this, except it happened -- picked up a golf club for the first time.
He had been a high-school athlete, baseball and basketball. In Vietnam, an Army buddy named Ken Hummel suggested he try golf.
“Up to that point,” Nelson would say later, “I really thought it was a sissy sport. But the guy that told me about it hadn’t shaved for about two weeks and he hadn’t bathed in longer than that and he had an M-16 and I didn’t want to tell him what I thought about golf.”
Back home, nothing better to do one day, Nelson went to a driving range. We’ve all picked up a driving-range driver. They’re gawdawful. They look like they came from the bag of an over-the-road trucker who backed over them and then, to make sure, ran over them in the other direction. Nelson loved ‘em. Hit ‘em straight. Pretty soon, hit ‘em long.
Found the Ben Hogan book, “Five Lessons.” Wore that bible out, and in 1977, six years removed from walking the point in Vietnam, Larry Nelson was on the PGA Tour. Two years later, he won twice and finished second on the money list to Tom Watson.
Nelson has won 10 times on the PGA Tour (twice the PGA champ, in ’81 and ’87). He won four times on the Japan Tour and 19 times on the PGA Tour Champions. In 2006, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. As a three-time Ryder Cup player, he went 9-0 before losing a match (“He’s going to be afraid of Seve?”), and the PGA of America still owes its two-time champion an apology for never naming him a Ryder Cup captain.
Nelson is now 68 years old. Thirty-three years ago, he earned his invitation to come back to Oakmont anytime. But, try as I might, here’s the closest I came to finding him . . .