The PGA of America upheld one of its long-standing traditions in December when it appointed yet another Ryder Cup captain not named Larry Nelson. (In case you missed it, Tom Watson will lead the U.S. team to Scotland in 2014.) The choice drew criticism from Nelson supporters, and rightly so, because snubbing Nelson is an insult that has grown over the years like a snowball hurtling down a hill.
I first met Larry during the third round of the 1976 Byron Nelson Classic. He was a late-blooming Tour pro. I was a wide-eyed 13-year-old in the stands behind the first green. When Nelson had putted out, he strolled toward the gallery, ducked under the rope, and sat down beside me.
“You play golf, young man?” he asked.
“Just started,” I replied.
“Well, keep at it. Maybe someday you’ll be out here.”
All these years later, I still haven’t met a kinder, more gracious Tour pro than Nelson. Or one more deserving of a Ryder Cup captaincy—and, no, not just because he’s a swell guy.
Nelson won two PGA Championships and a U.S. Open. He is the only American to go 9-0-0 in his first nine Ryder Cup matches. And he played on three winning Ryder Cup teams. Nelson didn’t need to fight in a war to prove his allegiance to his country, but he did that too, serving as an infantryman in Vietnam.
Don’t try to tell me his time has passed. Tom Watson is 63. Nelson is just two years older and every bit as active, having played a full schedule on the Champions Tour in 2012. Heck, Michelangelo completed the Pietà, arguably his finest work, at 87. Should the PGA finally wise up and grant Nelson the captaincy for 2016, I’m confident he could muster the focus and fortitude to get his players to the first tee on time.
This isn’t the first time the PGA of America has denied a deserving would-be captain. Decades ago, seven-time major winner Gene Sarazen was also left twiddling his thumbs. Despite winning 39 Tour events, including three PGA Championships, and playing in six Ryder Cups, Sarazen was never asked to skipper a U.S. team. Among the less accomplished players selected over him: Lloyd Mangrum in 1953, Chick Harbert (1955), Jackie Burke Jr. (1957), and Jay Hebert (1971). From this group, only Burke won more than one major. All of them, however, served in the military, which seemed to appeal to PGA brass.
By the early 1970s, I can only hope that someone at the PGA went to bat for Sarazen. By then, the deciders likely felt that the Squire was beyond his “prime,” but, c’mon—when filling a post that is more of an honor than a job, is it ever too late to right a wrong? Which brings me back to Nelson.
The job was “supposed” to be his in 1995. Then his pal Lanny Wadkins asked Nelson if he would mind “swapping” spots with him in the assumed line of succession. Nelson agreed, and Wadkins’s team went on to lose at Oak Hill, marking just the second time a U.S. Ryder Cup team had lost a home game. When 1997 came around, the PGA ignored the implied arrangement and chose Tom Kite as the captain to face Seve Ballesteros in Spain. Nelson would have been an inspired choice given he had beaten the fiery Spaniard four times at the 1979 Ryder Cup, but it was not to be. Not in ’97. Or ’99. Or any other year since.
The next opening is 2016, and while it’s too late for the PGA of America to honor Sarazen, who died in 1999, it can still do the right thing with Nelson. Here’s hoping the PGA doesn’t make the same mistake twice.