This being the year for quiet men to win the major golf championships, most of the suspense in Atlanta last Sunday centered around the possibility of Larry Nelson tipping his cap after he strolled away with the PGA title. Alas, he did. Right there on the 18th green of the Atlanta Athletic Club. Larry's emotional display lasted almost two seconds after he had taken the last of the season's majors by four strokes in much the same way that Tom Watson won the Masters, David Graham the U.S. Open and Bill Rogers the British Open. Nelson drove into most of the fairways and played solid irons into soft greens, making it look as if he were playing a different game from everyone else. All in all, Nelson stayed as far away from the golf course's problems as Acworth, Ga., where he lives. A commuter won this 63rd PGA. In the end, his biggest problem was traffic.
Nelson, who is a fine player and needs to make no apologies for his swing or shot-making ability, started winning the tournament on the second nine holes of Thursday's first round. He shot three under par on the back side that day and stood within four strokes of Bob Murphy, whose 66 led. He then fired a 66 of his own on Friday that drew him to within one shot of Murphy after 36 holes. But it was still another 66 on Saturday that catapulted him into the four-stroke lead he had to go out and protect on Sunday. The way Larry was playing, there seemed little doubt in anyone's mind that he would be able to do it and give the home folks something to whoop about until Herschel Walker takes his first pitchout for the Georgia Bulldogs.
The nearest anyone could get to Nelson in the final 18 was three strokes, and it was never that close very long because of the trouble that kept befalling those in pursuit. There was a great deal of trouble on the Athletic Club layout, brutal rough, much length here and there, beckoning forests on the back nine and water galore. Double and triple bogeys were there to grab you, and they grabbed just about everybody but Nelson at one time or another.
Larry calmly marched along at even par for 10 holes on Sunday, and at this point Fuzzy Zoeller, with a new hairdo to fit his name—a perm—was the same four shots away that he had been on the 1st tee. Something disastrous was going to have to happen to Nelson, or everyone but Larry's fellow Georgians could go to sleep.
August 16, 1981
Nelson flirted with danger only twice from there to the clubhouse. At the 470-yard, par-4 11th he struck one of his rare bad shots, a four-wood second that started left and went left. He found himself far off the green and facing a difficult pitch to get out of the hole with a bogey. He couldn't even have considered a par. He executed that pitch and did, in fact, get away with a bogey. With his lead chopped to three strokes going to the 13th, Larry did that thing he had been doing all week. He made a birdie. And when Zoeller stumbled to a bogey, Nelson quickly had a five-shot lead.
The 415-yard, par-4 14th hole, not the most difficult on the course, now became the most crucial of the day—and the championship. Nelson hit a peculiar tee shot, a slice. For him, that's peculiar. When he goes bad, he hooks. But he was overcompensating and, after all, trying to play safe and protect a lead is often the toughest thing for a golfer to do.
In the woods, Nelson unwisely decided to play over the trees, caught a high limb and found himself in deeper trouble. He was behind a clump of trees with no clear shot to the green. It looked like a double bogey for sure, and with water hazards up ahead, there could still be a contest. Here, Nelson benefited from a free drop from ground under repair; it didn't take him around the trees but gave him just enough of an opening to the green if he were capable of hitting a nerveless and fairly marvelous pitch shot. Nelson did exactly that, putting the ball on the green and escaping with a bogey instead of something horrible. On 15, 17 and 18, the water holes, Nelson gave himself so much room, you thought he might be aiming at Waycross or Macon. With the water to the right, he was far to the left off the 15th tee, but chipped up nicely to save par. At the par-3 17th, he was well over the pond fronting the green. And at the 18th he hit his second shot over the water and the green into a rear bunker, but again got up and down for par—and a closing round of one-over 71.
Nelson could have stayed in that bunker for half an hour and still won. Happiness is knowing you can afford a triple bogey and yet collect your first major.
Bunkers are part of Nelson's life, and not just the ones he knew in Vietnam as an artillery observer. Earlier this year at Greensboro, Nelson gained the most miraculous victory of the season.
He arrived at the 72nd hole two strokes behind Mark Hayes, the leader, and was in a bunker with a blind shot to the flag, while Hayes was on the green. You can't win a tournament when you're in the bunker and two shots behind the man who's on the green, but Nelson did. He holed out the bunker shot, Hayes three-putted, they went into sudden death, and Larry won on the second extra hole.
After walking off the final green Sunday in Atlanta, Nelson said, "It helped for me to be paired with Fuzzy. I like his attitude about the game, his sense of humor. He kept both of us loose, whether I looked like it or not."
Fuzzy began loosening up the locker room before the last round. Jerry Pate, who had won the U.S. Open on the same course in 1976, had a comment about Zoeller's new hairdo.
"I've seen more hair on the back of my dog," said Pate.
"Yeah?" Fuzzy said. "How about you? Ever seen a bald-headed dog?"
On the end of that, Nelson came into the locker room carrying his golf bag, having driven the hour and a half from Acworth.
"Hey, Nelly, if you tote that thing yourself, I'll have a shot at you today," Fuzzy yelled.
Nelson grinned and kept walking. He didn't grin again until the last hole, not so much that anyone could tell, anyhow. This gave him something more in common with Graham, who had put the U.S. Open at Merion into a snooze, and Rogers, who split so many fairways at Sandwich that the British Open became a bore. Graham waltzed home by three strokes in Philadelphia, and Rogers buried everyone by four strokes in England, and now Nelson had done it to the PGA field by four strokes with his 273, seven under par.
This was a lower winning total than anyone expected, and the soft greens were the reason. The greens weren't just soft from the rain that twice delayed play on Thursday and Friday. They are bent-grass greens, and bent-grass greens in the South are bound to be soft. This sometimes doesn't favor the more skilled ball hitters. It's an equalizer. Going into soft, holding greens, you simply have to hit the ball solid and have the right distance; you don't have to play "talent" shots with the irons.
To some extent, the soft greens at Atlanta explained the scoreboard that continually lacked a certain marquee value. Jack Nicklaus did tie for fourth, but he was never a factor. Tom Watson missed the cut for the first time in a major since the '79 Open. Three noteworthy chaps, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Bill Rogers, didn't make the cut until Saturday morning when, in the rain-delayed finish of the second round, Lou Graham triple bogeyed the last hole and Brad Bryant double bogeyed it.
Dart-throwing greens had nothing to do with why Lee Trevino missed the cut and everything else after a first-round 74. That happened because he failed to sign his scorecard. One reason he didn't was that Tom Weiskopf signed it for him. There was much confusion in the scoring tent after Trevino, Weiskopf and Lanny Wadkins completed their round. The cards were passed back and forth and numbers were corrected. Weiskopf signed all three cards and Lanny signed two of them. Trevino thought he signed his card, but didn't. The error escaped notice until later in the day, when Trevino was automatically disqualified.
"I don't have anybody to blame but myself," Lee said.
"Yes, you do," Weiskopf said, feeling guilty. "You can blame me."
"Ah, hell, Tom, you get blamed for too many things as it is," Trevino replied.
After that, it was Nelson's week. As he stood out there Sunday afternoon in the 18th fairway facing a three-iron shot over the water and all those Georgians, he knew there was only one way he could lose—by hitting a couple of balls into the lake.
"If I'd had a one-shot lead, that's probably what I'd have done," he said. "I'm a choker. But the big lead allowed me to tell myself I was man enough to hit that three-iron over the water."
Larry was man enough to do far more than that, even though he kept most of it to himself.