Larry Nelson finds it is never too late to win US Open

Superstars have never had a lock on golf's US Open title, so Larry Nelson's victory in the 1983 championship is actually less surprising than another fact - that he only started playing the game 14 years ago.

The quiet, congenial Georgia resident saw extensive combat duty in Vietnam, where he served with a golfer who provoked his interest in the game. After Nelson's discharge, he tried hitting balls at a driving range. Liking the experience, he left a job as an industrial illustrator and went to work in a pro shop.

Learning primarily from Ben Hogan's book ''Five Lessons,'' he gave himself three months to break 40 for nine holes, and did. The goal-oriented Nelson then wanted to shoot par for 18 by the end of the summer, which he did. Less than a year after he began playing, he broke par to fulfill another goal.

For the next three years he played the mini tours and in 1973 qualified for the PGA tour. He progressed steadily until in 1979 he was named the tour's most improved player by Golf Digest for winning two tournaments and almost $300,000.

At that point he set yet another goal: to win a major championship. And in 1981, in front of thousands of his friends in Atlanta, smiling commuter Larry Nelson overcame a difficult Atlanta Athletic course and a superior field to capture the PGA by four strokes with a glittering score of 273.

His shot-making throughout was precise and consistent, just the sort demanded by the majors. He built his eventual margin of victory in the first 54 holes and readily held off all challengers the last day.

He did it differently in winning a thrilling, wearing, rain-delaying US Open here this week.

After 36 holes at a torturous Oakmont Country Club course, Nelson trailed co-leaders John Mahaffey and Joey Rassett by seven strokes. As usual, he was unflustered.

For the final 36 holes, he shot 65-67-132, or 10 under par - the best in Open history by four strokes. His four-under-par 280 total was one slim stroke better than defending champion Tom Watson, who played valiantly from start to end.

The key stroke was a 62-foot birdie putt of Watsonesque proportions that Nelson sank on the 16th green Monday, after thunderstorms had postponed the finish of the fourth round. It did in Watson, who had blown away his playing partner and leading contender Seve Ballesteros, the Masters winner, with six birdies in the first nine holes Sunday.

Up ahead of that dramatic final pairing, however, Nelson had been steadily whittling away at Watson's lead, and when Nelson birdied the 14th hole Sunday, he was even. That's the way the two stood when play was postponed overnight.

On Monday, Nelson's heroic putt on 16 gave him the lead and Watson ultimately missed his chance to catch him on 17 when Watson made a sensational bunker recovery, but hit the resulting six-foot putt too hard and bogeyed the short par four.

Nelson bogeyed the difficult 18th and Watson's long par putt curved in, but the outcome was cast.

Nelson was the winner on an Open course that may have been the toughest ever. The rough was as high as an elephant's eye and terrifyingly thick, and the greens were as slick as linoleum.

''In those respects,'' said four-time winner Jack Nicklaus, who finished well back at 300, ''it's the hardest Open course I've played.''

Gil Morgan finished third behind Watson, with Ballesteros tying the ever-accurate Calvin Peete for fourth and fifth. Budding superstar Hal Sutton was sixth.

Nelson could scarcely have been a greater surprise. Coming into the tournament, he had missed the 36-hole cut in 9 of 16 tournaments this year and withdrawn in a 10th. His best finish was sixth at Atlanta in front of the home folks.

''I'm not as surprised as most people,'' he said, ''because I struck the ball well all season. I just didn't make any putts until the Open.

''I tried a hundred different putting methods, and I finally hit on something here. I stopped soling the putter on the ground, which enabled me to grip it more lightly and not catch in the grass taking it away from the ball. I don't have to lift the putter starting the stroke, which is one less move to worry about.''

Even the best players do not usually expect to find a putting stroke at the US Open, but Larry Nelson did, and he is a deserving champion. . . at the age of 35 after taking up the sport at the advanced age of 21.

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