Born in the northeast corner of Alabama, in a small city named Fort Payne, Larry Gene Nelson, 74, didn’t pick up a golf club until he was 21 years old. After moving to Acworth, Georgia—35 miles northwest of Atlanta—he became a two-sport standout in high school, playing baseball and basketball. Nelson was a 20-year-old newlywed when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. He was an infantryman, who, during three months of combat in Vietnam, walked point whenever he took his platoon deep into enemy territory. An Army buddy in Vietnam suggested Nelson try golf, and when he returned home from military service a year later, he took his friend’s advice.
Nelson attended college full-time after being discharged from the Army while also working seven days a week. For Christmas in 1969, Nelson’s wife Gayle gave him a set of golf clubs, and he soon displayed a natural ability for playing the game. Nelson taught himself by reading Ben Hogan’s book, “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.” Nelson broke 100 the first time he played 18 holes, and broke 70 within nine months.
Being such a quick study, Nelson turned professional in 1971 and was content to be a club pro at Pine Tree Golf Club in Kennesaw, Ga. But by 1973, and after moving to Florida to begin competing professionally on mini tours to further develop his game, Nelson played his way on to the PGA TOUR after competing in just one 72-hole tournament.
Nelson’s breakthrough year on the PGA TOUR came in 1979, when he claimed the first two of his 10 PGA TOUR victories and finished second to Tom Watson on the TOUR’s money list.
Two years later, Nelson won his first major championship at the 1981 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. In the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, Nelson chased down 54-hole leaders Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros when rain pushed the finish to Monday morning. Riding a record 65-67 blitz over his final 36 holes, Nelson finally caught Watson after rolling in a birdie from 62 feet on the par-3 16th hole. When Watson bogeyed the 17th and failed to birdie the last, Nelson claimed the U.S. Open trophy by one stroke.
Four years later, Nelson punctuated his third-career multi-win season by capturing the 1987 PGA Championship at PGA National for his third major—a month shy of his 40th birthday and just 18 years removed from the first time he picked up a golf club.
Nelson played on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams—1979, 1981, and 1987 at Muirfield Village Golf Club—and was 9-0-0 before he lost his first match. His record of 9–3–1 remains one of the best in the modern era of the Ryder Cup, when players from continental Europe joined Great Britain & Ireland team in ’79. Nelson’s 5-0-0 performance in his debut has been equaled only three times, the event became the U.S. versus Europe in 1979.
"Larry Nelson sacrificed to serve our country and then served the game of golf wonderfully," said Memorial Tournament Founder and Host Jack Nicklaus. "He came to the game late, but he quickly made an impact. Larry made himself into a really good player, won major championships, and was terrific in the Ryder Cup. He was always a very modest and humble man who amassed a wonderful career very quietly."
After turning 50, Nelson went on to win 19 times on the PGA TOUR Champions, including six victories in 2000 when he received the Jack Nicklaus Award as Player of the Year. In 2006, Nelson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Nelson and his wife have two children and three grandchildren.