Feeding Frenzy A supercharged diet has Larry Nelson feasting on the Senior tour, on which he has won three of his last four starts to make a late-season run at player of the year

October 01, 2000

The menus have arrived at Applebee's in Blue Ash, Ohio, and with a
sigh Larry Nelson scans the daily temptations. His eyes linger
lustfully in the red-light district of the appetizers. Mozzarella
sticks beckon him to come hither, deep-fried onion rings peddle
their tawdry charms. Nelson, with the resolve of a champion,
passes, settling for the lower-fat quesadillas as his main
course, plus a side salad with ranch dressing. Low-fat ranch,
that is. "Changing my diet was one of the best things I've ever
done," Nelson says grimly, folding up his menu.

If Nelson sounds less than enthusiastic, well, the proof is in
the (low-fat) pudding. Since embracing a cutting-edge diet in
mid-August, Nelson has been devouring the competition on the
Senior tour, finishing first, first, second and, at last week's
Bank One Championship in Dallas, first over his last four
tournaments, not to mention firing a 58 during the pro-am at the
Kroger Senior Classic, the day after his low-fun dinner at
Applebee's. This late-season burst has propelled Nelson, 53, to
the top of the Senior tour money list, with $2.27 million.

Should Nelson become the player of the year, it would be sweet
vindication for a terrific golfer who has never quite gotten his
due. It might also set off a new craze: pro golfers traveling
with duffel bags stuffed with dried cherries, natural peanut
butter, whole-grain cereal, high-tech trail mix and various other
specialty foods that have been fueling Nelson's ascension. The
diet was born out of an early-season malaise. Nelson finished
second in three tournaments in a row during the spring and then,
at last April's Bruno's Memorial Classic, he shot a 41 on the
final nine, blowing another chance at victory. "I was tired
physically and mentally, and I played like it," he says. Two
weeks later he faltered to a 74 on Sunday to kick away the
Nationwide Championship, and he knew he had to do something.

But what? The 5'9", 159-pound Nelson has always been in good
shape--10 years ago he was one of the few Tour players to embrace
serious conditioning, traveling with his own personal trainer. He
had a hunch that his final-round fades had something to do with
his diet, which was heavy on cookies and ice cream. Nelson
mentioned his suspicions to his wife of 33 years, Gayle, and not
long afterward she heard a radio interview with an Orlando
nutritionist named Pamela Smith, who has worked with Shaquille
O'Neal, among other athletes. When Gayle happened upon one of
Smith's tomes at a bookstore, she felt the tug of fate. Gayle
started making phone calls, and Smith wound up with Larry's
bloodwork.

"After talking with Larry, I could see that his diet was holding
him back," says Smith. "His blood sugar was very sensitive to
extreme highs and lows, and, as a result, so too was his energy.
On top of that Larry was suffering bouts of dehydration. When the
stress would build on the course, his body was doing chemical
gymnastics."

To stabilize Nelson's system Smith has him eating "power snacks"
every 2 to 2 1/2 hours. They consist of basic foods--nuts, dried
fruits, boiled eggs, cereals, peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches--mixed in specific portions to achieve an ideal blend
of simple carbohydrates and low-fat proteins. Nelson prepares the
grub himself, ferrying the disparate elements around the nation
in a duffel bag, and then stuffing plastic bags of them in his
golf bag. Nelson has also been ordered to drink 12 to 16 ounces
of water every two hours while on the course. ("I've told the
tour it needs to install more port-a-potties," he says.)

Nelson began his fancy new diet the week of the Novell Utah
Showdown in mid-August. Up to that point he had been playing with
his typical consistent excellence, though he had rarely gotten
over the hump on the final day. Among his 14 top seven finishes
were only two victories. At the tournament following Utah, the
BankBoston Classic, he fired an energetic final-round 66--his low
round of the week--to cruise to a four-shot victory. The next
week, during the final round of the Foremost Insurance
Championship in Ada, Mich., he set the Egypt Valley Country Club
course record with a 63 to win yet again, his ninth career
victory on the Senior tour. Says Nelson, who finished third and
fourth on the money list in 1998 and '99, respectively, "My
clarity of mind, my strength and stamina have all improved
dramatically. I haven't felt this good in 25 years."

A quarter century ago Nelson had just embarked on the most
unlikely golf odyssey this side of Rannulph Junah. Growing up in
Acworth, Ga., 20 miles northwest of Atlanta, Nelson had little
interest in the game. He was a two-sport star at North Cobb High,
a sweet-shooting point guard who once scored 32 points in a half
and a junkball pitcher who went undefeated as a senior with an
ERA south of 1.00. Nelson earned a scholarship to play both
sports at nearby Southern Tech College. At the end of his
sophomore year in 1966, he sold his little-used golf clubs to
help pay for his and Gayle's honeymoon (two nights in Atlanta).

Nine months after the wedding Nelson left for an 89-day tour of
duty in Vietnam, where he was an infantry sergeant and team
leader, walking point through the rice paddies outside Da Nang.
Nelson left Nam intact, but a week after arriving home he blew
out his throwing arm in a pickup baseball game, convincing him
that it was time to find a real job. He enrolled at Kennesaw
State in Acworth, to finish his associate's degree in
engineering. His classes over by midmorning, Nelson began to
spend his days shamelessly playing golf at Pine Tree Country
Club. (Gayle was bringing home the bacon by working as a sales
clerk at Allied Chemical.) Nelson spent so much time at the club
that he was hired as an assistant pro, and nine months after
taking up the game in earnest, this most natural of athletes
broke 70. "I always say, I didn't pick golf. It picked me,"
Nelson says, almost apologetically.

For two years Nelson honed his game, and then he and Gayle lit
out for Tampa and the National Tournament Golf Association
mini-tour. In his first event Nelson shot 71-72, and he still
remembers the amount he won, $67. "It was absolutely the best I
could play, and I finished something like a dozen strokes
behind," Nelson says. "You know, I've never really been good
enough at any level. I wasn't good enough to be a head pro,
wasn't good enough for the mini-tours, I wasn't good enough to
make the PGA Tour. Every step of the way I've had to raise my
level of play to survive."

Nelson clawed his way onto the Tour in 1974, and finally broke
through in '79, winning twice and finishing a career-best second
on the money list. Deadly straight off the tee and murder with
his long irons, Nelson excelled on tough courses, and he was a
fearless enough competitor to go 8-0 in his first two Ryder Cups.
In '81 Nelson began to be a force in the majors. He blew away the
field at that year's PGA at the Atlanta Athletic Club, his lead
never dipping below three strokes during the final round. At the
'83 U.S. Open at Oakmont, reputedly the toughest track in
championship golf, he sank a 60-foot birdie putt on the 70th hole
to beat Tom Watson, at the time the game's best player. At the
'87 PGA he stared down the famously fearsome Lanny Wadkins,
winning on the first hole of sudden death.

Despite these achievements, Nelson is rarely mentioned when the
game's greats are discussed. His dissing became officially
sanctioned when the PGA of America passed him over for the Ryder
Cup captaincy in 1995 and in '97. Nelson's lack of renown is in
part his own doing. He often played only two or three tournaments
besides the majors during the summer, preferring to be with Gayle
and coach the soccer and baseball teams of their two boys, Drew,
now 23, who is cutting his teeth on the mini-tours, and Josh, 22,
who's a senior at Auburn.

Even in his prime Nelson had more on his mind than just playing
golf. In the early '90s Larry Nelson Enterprises had six
full-time employees. In addition to designing and building 15
courses worldwide (including Springhouse Golf Club in Nashville,
site of the BellSouth Senior Classic), Nelson patented and
marketed a golf-centric swing-strengthening device called the
Protonic.

In recent years Nelson has dismantled the business. "It's just
about playing golf now," he says, and that, along with his new
diet, helps explain his stellar play this year. Like the black
'57 Thunderbird he keeps at home in Marietta, Ga., Nelson isn't
getting older; he's getting better. "This has been my most
consistent year and maybe the most enjoyable," he says. "When
you're on the PGA Tour there's always next year. You can't even
fathom not playing golf anymore. Out here, you know it's almost
the end of the road, so the happy times are sweeter, and the
failures never hurt as bad."

Funny that Nelson would use the word sweet. Back at Applebee's,
his low-fun meal has long since been finished, and he has waved
off any talk of dessert, despite multiple entreaties by an overly
perky waitress. All that's left to digest is the question of what
the player of the year title would mean to him. "It would be
nice," he says. "I don't know if you can do anything on the
Senior tour that adds to your career. It's more a case of
self-satisfaction than trying to prove anything to anyone. All it
would mean is that for one year I was the best player over the
age of 50."

For Nelson, who has sacrificed so much (sugar) to get here, the
title would be more than nice. It would be his just desserts.

Golf Plus will next appear in the Oct. 16 issue of SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL TRY THIS Since limiting himself to healthy foods, like those found in trail mix, Nelson says he has never felt, or played, better. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL CLOSER Nelson, who used to fade down the stretch, came from three shots behind on Sunday to win the Bank One Championship.

"Out here, you know it's almost the end of the road," says
Nelson, "so the happy times are sweeter, and the failures never
hurt as bad."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)