LINKS LETTER, APRIL 2001

OLDER, WISER, BETTER

By Jeff Hopper

What would you call a one-time baseball junkie, a Vietnam veteran, and a guy who first played golf at 21 and who turned professional still shooting in the mid-80s, all rolled into one?

You’d call him Larry Nelson.

And—amazingly—you’d call him the Player of the Year on the 2000 PGA Senior Tour.

Of course, Nelson’s resume is far more spectacular than that little list above. He has won 10 times on the PGA Tour, including two PGA Championships and the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont. And after six victories in 2000, Nelson had won 11 times on the Champions Tour.

With all this experience, the 53-year-old Nelson is certainly no one’s fool. But 2000 came as a complete surprise—a really nice surprise.

“Historically, the best year is usually the second year,” Nelson explains. “I told my tax accountant, “Well, I finished third on the money list the first year, then fourth or third the second year.” I figured if I could finish in the top 5 or 10, then it would be a pretty good year. I ended up finishing first!”

Nelson’s pre-season expectations had been tempered by nagging neck and arm injuries (from a herniated disc) during his first two seasons on the Champions Tour. Then he started slowly in 2000.

“I think that when I turned 45, the thoughts of playing the Champions Tour started becoming more of a reality,” Nelson says. “So I really wanted to get into good physical shape, hopefully the best physical shape I’d ever been in. I wanted to compete at the highest level when I turned 50.”

So Nelson was prepared—until the injuries came.

“I was in really good shape on my fiftieth birthday, and then it seemed like the whole bottom fell out. Everything that I had worked for, as far as strength and flexibility was nullified by a physical problem I had no control over.”

But on a Tour for the PGA’s best players over 50, the effects of aging, including strains and fatigue, are to be expected. Still, for world-caliber athletes, setbacks are not always easily accepted.

Not so with Nelson, who started the game humbly with a set of clubs his wife gave him for Christmas in 1969.

“Not knowing whether I’d ever play again, concerned about how much damage was done to the nerve in my neck—the Lord just gave me a lot of peace,” says Nelson. “There was just a lot of confirmation from the Lord that if I couldn’t play golf again, I would be OK. He would have something for me and it would be better than what I expected.”

Such peace is a very apparent part of Nelson’s life. Nelson and his wife Gayle grew up together in Georgia. They have known each other since before they started school—grade school. Together they have raised two sons, Drew and Josh, who share their father’s love of competitive golf.

In the beginning, however, Nelson was not so sure about competitive golf. He turned professional in 1970 and broke 70 for the first time in November of that year. It was more than a year before he did it again. Content in his role as an assistant at Pine Tree Country Club in Kennesaw, Georgia, Nelson only aspired to move up to a head pro position someday.

But he was encouraged by some members at the club to give the mini-tours a try, and with their financial backing, the Nelsons quit their jobs and moved to Florida. In his first professional tournament, Nelson shot even par and made $63.

Over the next year or so, Nelson won two tournaments, and in 1973—after the clueless Nelsons found out what the Tour Qualifying School was—the future national champion decided to give Q-School a try. The undaunted Nelson played the longest tournament of his life and qualified for the 1974 Tour.

Nelson had a horrible start. Under the old Monday qualifying system, he qualified for just one of his first 11 events, and then missed the cut. But he finished eighth at Jacksonville and won $3,500, enough to allow him to keep his Tour card for 1975.

That $3,500 led to the most important meeting of his life: his encounter with Jesus Christ. Gayle accepted Christ as Savior after hearing Cindy Massengale speak at a wives’ tea. Although Larry had considered Gayle “perfect” for as long as he had known her, he saw an even greater change in Gayle after she began walking with Christ. Laid up after an automobile accident in San Diego, with a hotel Bible in hand, Nelson gave his life to Christ.

He has been talking about this relationship with God ever since.

But this isn’t a message that is always easy for Nelson to get across. The media seek the world’s explanations. When Nelson started repeating victories in 2000, the questions were for the most part about a change in Nelson’s diet. It was a change that Gayle suggested, and it was designed to increase Nelson’s energy level throughout the round.

Yet Nelson tried to keep the diet in perspective. “I think [it] was significant in that it increased my energy level, increased my concentration level. But it didn’t make my swing any better, or my putting stroke any better. I think what it did was make much easier what I have trained to do for 30-something years.

“Mostly when I’m asked questions, it’s usually like, ‘How much has the diet meant to your game, what part has that played in your golf game?’ I don’t think I was ever really asked, ‘What do you feel was the biggest difference this year?’ ”

When that second question was put to Nelson, he conceded that while he may work on his game, the role of God is greater still.

“There is the scripture, ‘Humble yourself before the mighty hand of God and He will lift you up in due time.’ And that’s pretty much it,” Nelson says. “All I can do is practice, work on my game and work on my body, trying to stay in good shape and play as good as I can. Everything else—the financial rewards, whatever accolades I receive—really come from Him.”

If there seems to be a nonchalance about Nelson’s approach to winning and losing, you might try to write it off to his having just collected more than $2.5 million in a single season. Of course you can be happy with three majors in your pocket and a whole lot of cash as well.

But contentment is a lesson that Nelson has been teaching himself and others since before he had ever won a major tournament or been named Player of the Year. In 1980, a year after he had double-bogeyed the 71st hole to cost himself $64,000 at the World Series of Golf, Nelson told the Links Letter that ” ‘the peace that passeth understanding’ is worth more than anything the world has to offer.”

And now that the rewards and the accolades have rolled in like at no other time—the Associated Press referred to Nelson as “Senior Tiger” in the follow-up to his victory in Dallas last September—Nelson wonders why all the blessings have suddenly been heaped on him.

“I think with every Christian, it has to go through their mind,” Nelson says. “You look around and you see people who are doing seemingly great things for the Lord that don’t have near the material blessings that you do, and I wonder why me and not them. Then I just go back to saying ‘thank you’ because I do not deserve a thing I have.

“I know that everything I do have is not really mine. I lay claims to it every once in awhile and want to say it’s mine, but we know and we’re grateful every year when my wife and I can sit down and give back a portion of what we’ve been given.”

For Nelson, then, it is not a matter of fate, but a matter of faith. And that faith is serious. So serious, that Nelson would choose his words boldly if he had more than a few seconds to thank the tournament sponsors on national TV.

“I think I would talk about what I think is wrong with the country,” Nelson begins. “If someone was asking me to say anything I wanted to say, I would say this: Basically, I think that the media—popular TV shows and commercials—are portraying an image that looks like everybody would be happy if they could be good-looking, wealthy, smart, and go along with and fit into the rest of the world.

“In reality that’s not what makes a person truly happy.

“But the young people are bombarded so much by what they see on television that they really feel like—even if they come from a Christian home, even if they know Christ—they need to fit into this mold or they will never be happy. They’re almost brainwashed by the time they get old enough to make any decisions for themselves.

“I think what I would want to say is this: that God is sufficient and without Him, you’re always going to be empty, and that if you can find Him and walk with Him, then you’ll be successful in whatever you do.”

Will Larry Nelson ever get the chance to deliver his longer speech? Of course, it would take a win and a lot of extra TV time. And Nelson himself says that much of 2001 depends on his health.

But for a man who places all his stock in eternity, what tomorrow holds—victory or defeat—apparently really does not matter.

COPYRIGHT 2001 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Larry Nelson

    10 PGA Tour wins (three majors): 1979 Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, 1979 Western Open, 1980 Atlanta Classic, 1981 Greater Greensboro Open, 1981 PGA Championship, 1983 U.S. Open, 1984 Walt Disney World Golf Classic, 1987 PGA Championship, 1987 Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic, 1988 Georgia Pacific Atlanta Golf Classic

    19 Champions Tour Wins: 1998 American Express Invitational, 1998 Pittsburgh Senior Classic, 1998 Boone Valley Classic, 1999 GTE Classic, 1999 Bruno’s Memorial Classic, 2000 Las Vegas Senior Classic, 2000 Boone Valley Classic, 2000 FleetBoston Classic, 2000 Foremost Insurance Championship, 2000 BankOne Senior Championship, 2000 Vantage Championship, 2001 MasterCard Championship, 2001 Royal Caribbean Classic, 2001 FleetBoston Classic, 2001 Farmers Charity Classic, 2001 SBC Championship, 2003 Constellation Energy Classic, 2004 FedEx Kinko’s Classic, 2004 Administaff Small Business Classic

    Awards: 2006 inductee into World Golf Hall of Fame