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Sports Then and Now

Larry Nelson: From Vietnam to Victory

Posted on August 02, 2015 by Dean Hybl

The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was the rare professional golfer who did not take up the game as a youth. However, despite not starting to play until he was 21-years-old and a Vietnam War veteran, Larry Nelson still went on to win three golf majors and 10 tournaments during his career.

Primarily a basketball and baseball player as a kid growing up outside Atlanta, Georgia, Nelson was introduced to golf following his return from a tour as an infantry man during the Vietnam War.

Using the Ben Hogan book The Five Fundamentals of Golf as his guide, Nelson proved to be a quick study. He broke 100 the first time he played and within nine months had broken 70.

He graduated from Kennesaw Junior College in 1970 and turned pro the next year. He qualified for the PGA Tour at age 27 and by 1976 he earned a spot in the U.S. Open and tied for 21st in his first-ever appearance at one of the four majors.

The 1979 year proved to be his breakout year. Nelson claimed his first PGA victory at the Jackie Gleason Classic and then tied for fourth at the U.S. Open. He later won the Western Open in a playoff with Ben Crenshaw.

During the 1980 season, Nelson won the Atlanta Classic while finishing tied for six at the Masters and tied for 12th in his first appearance in the British Open.

He earned his first victory in one of golf’s four majors by claiming the PGA Championship by four strokes over Fuzzy Zoeller in 1981.

Nelson did not win another tournament on tour until edging Tom Watson by a single stroke to win the 1983 U.S. Open. He had been seven strokes back after two rounds, but shot 65-67 (10-under par) over the final two rounds to edge Watson.

He claimed his final major championship in 1987 by defeating Lanny Wadkins in a playoff to win his second PGA Championship.

Nelson claimed two more wins on the PGA tour, with his final win coming near his hometown at the 1988 Atlanta Golf Classic.

After turning 50 in 1997, Nelson moved to the Champions Tour and was among their most dominant players over the next four years. He won three times in 1998, twice in 1999, six times in 2000 and five times in 2001.

He eventually claimed 19 Champions Tour titles, with his final title coming in 2004 at what is now the Insperity Invitational.

Because his time as a top PGA player was brief compared to most golfers who start at an earlier age, he is often overlooked when discussing the top golfers of the 1980s, but in addition to his success on tour, Nelson was also a key figure on three Ryder Cup teams posting a 9-3-1 record.

He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006 and in 2011 received the PGA Distinguished Service Award.

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