Kiawah Island, S.C. — He is a Hall of Famer now and has been for more than a year, so you can say yes, Larry Nelson finally got his due. He won two PGA Championships and a U.S. Open, was a Ryder Cup killer with a 9-3-1 record and was considered one of the tour’s best ballstrikers, especially with middle irons, for years. His place in history is secure.
Realistically, though, he still seems like golf’s Invisible Man. There was the Ryder Cup captaincy pass-over, when he was apparently next in line for the job but curiously didn’t get it. There is his still-lingering image as “vanilla,” when in fact he’s one of the more interesting interviews in the game. There’s the case of the missing highlights. You want to watch video of Nelson winning the Open at Oakmont in 1983? You can find highlight videos for every other year, but if you want to watch clips of Nelson’s win, you have to snag the 1982 U.S. Open video. There’s a pathetically small amount of footage of Nelson winning the next year attached at the end.
There was the rip-job done on him by an eccentric, long-gone Pittsburgh columnist who blasted him for being boring while shooting 65-67 in the last two rounds to win the ’83 Open, when he outdueled Tom Watson. Trust me, 65-67 is never boring at Oakmont.
Now add the Golf Channel, which touts itself as the home of golf, to the list of those snubbing Nelson. Have you seen Golf Channel’s promo for its upcoming U.S. Open coverage at Oakmont? The spot is lathered thick with Oakmont history — images of Ben Hogan in ’53, Jack Nicklaus in ’62, Johnny Miller in ’73 and Ernie Els in ’94. They are all shown, and all of Oakmont’s Open champions from the past half-century are mentioned. Except for Nelson.
Say it again for effect: Except for Nelson.
“I told my wife, just tell my why they would leave out ’83?” Nelson said. “Is there somebody out there saying, ‘Let’s not mention Larry.’ I mean, I beat two of the best players in the world that week — Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson. I’m actually going to call the Golf Channel and say, just for my benefit, I’d like to know. I could care less. I’m done and all that stuff, but this is what’s happened throughout my career. Somebody inside the Golf Channel, just tell me why you would leave my name out. I don’t care, but why? Why?”
Ultimately, the answer doesn’t matter. Nelson always had the respect of his peers. He’s still got game and, just as important, he’s still game. He was given a last-minute exemption to the ’94 Open at Oakmont, where he was paired with Nicklaus and Miller in one of those clever threesomes that insiders at the United States Golf Association are so fond of — the previous three Oakmont champs playing together. There will be no exemption this year. Nelson is 59 and starting to feel his age, but you can catch him in Atlanta next week when he’ll play in the 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier at Hawk’s Ridge in Ball Ground, Ga.
He hasn’t felt three fingers on his left hand for three weeks, and his right elbow is a little sore. “Aging — it’s not for sissies,” he jokes.
Can a 59-year-old handle 36 holes? “As long as my neck holds up, I’ll be fine,” he said, then broke into a chuckle and added, “It won’t be 36 holes if I don’t play good the first 18. If I play really good, I can make the second 18 on adrenaline. If I don’t, it won’t be a problem.”
If he does make it to Oakmont, he’ll get to relive his ’83 victory. It was a strange week when he won. Eastern Airlines lost his golf clubs. Nelson arrived Monday, but his clubs didn’t show up until the next afternoon. That might have been a blessing because he borrowed a putter and spent those two days getting used to the blistering speeds and daunting slopes of Oakmont’s greens. He played only nine holes Tuesday and Wednesday. When he teed it up Thursday, he couldn’t shake a feeling of nervousness. Nelson barely made the cut.
“Every time I looked down the fairway, all I could see was the rough, and it was high,” Nelson said. “When you can’t see Seve’s knees, you know the rough is deep. So I started to pick out a spot eight inches in front of my ball and never looked back down the fairway. All of a sudden, I started hitting the ball really well. By the end of the fourth round, I got my confidence back so I could look back down the fairway.”
Storms hit Oakmont on the weekend. Nelson saw a flash of lightning as he was putting out at the 15th hole right before play was suspended on Sunday. If he had one shot to do over, it would be that one because he rushed a short birdie putt and missed. The rain played to his strength, however, and softened the monster course.
“I always felt good at the Open and the PGA because I drove it well and could hit greens,” he said. “One of the golf magazines voted me best mid-iron player once. I had a hard time with greens that were hard and fast, but I could play target golf. It has to be soft to shoot 65-67 at Oakmont. You’re not going to do that unless it’s soft.”
When play resumed Monday morning, most of the fans went to watch Watson. Nelson noticed maybe 100 fans scattered around the grandstands at the par-3 16th hole.
“There was no wind, the fairways were soft and I had already figured out every shot that I was going to hit,” Nelson said. “I was going to hit 4-wood at 16, 3-iron at 17, then 3-wood, 4-wood into 18.”
His 4-wood shot at 16 didn’t cut and ended up on the left side of the green. He had 60 feet, down some tiers. Incredibly, he holed it. “The greens were just as smooth as they could be, and when the ball went over that last little downslope, I knew it was going in,” Nelson said. “A two-putt would’ve been good from there. I was really happy. I was tied for the lead because I had birdied 14. I knew Watson had to play 15, and I thought I had an advantage because 15 is one of the harder holes out there. I really got excited at that point, and walking to the 17th tee, I tried to calm myself down so I could hit a solid 3-iron shot.”
He hit the 3-iron fat. Instead of having a sand wedge approach, he had to hit 8-iron. He made par. He played 18 just as planned, hitting a 4-wood to 25 feet. Later, he heard TV announcers say his putt up a tier was the slowest on the course. He left it eight feet short and missed the second, a three-putt bogey. Before he hit his second putt at 18, though, he learned that Watson had bogeyed 17 from a greenside bunker. He stayed with his wife in the scoring area and watched Watson, who needed a birdie to tie, play the 18th.
“Tom flew it over the 18th green with his second shot,” Nelson said. “It was actually a pretty comfortable feeling knowing that he had to pitch it in. It wasn’t an easy pitch, even though he’d chipped in the year before on Nicklaus at 17 at Pebble Beach. Two years in a row, that really would’ve been something. Besides, the worst I could come out of it with was a tie.
“Tom hit a pretty good chip. It had a chance to hit the pin, but it went way past, and then he made the putt from 40 feet. My wife had the most astonished look on her face. She thought he’d made that putt to tie me. When that ball dropped, she had one of those big-eye things. I said, no, that’s OK, I still won.”
The rest was history, a victory he thinks about every time he is introduced as the U.S. Open champion. He’ll watch with interest, one way or another, as the Open returns to a lengthened, nearly treeless Oakmont.
“When I played there in ’83 and was looking at some of the winners who seemed so old, you thought about Nicklaus and Hogan,” Nelson said. “Now they’re playing there in 2007, and I’m the old guy. I’m the one who won it way back in 1983.”
Indeed, he did. Somebody tell the Golf Channel.