Nelson recalls winning the first PGA at AAC

Fuzzy Zoeller’s wife called him at 10 p.m. Saturday night, a few hours before he was to tee it up with Larry Nelson in the final group in the 1981 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

She wished him good luck. Oh, and she just bought an 80-acre farm.

“You better play well,” she said.

Zoeller tried. He trailed Nelson by four strokes going into Sunday’s last 18. He told Nelson about the farm as they walked the fairways during that last round. But the “Bulldog,” as Zoeller recently called Nelson, wouldn’t fold.

Hitting (mostly) fairway after fairway, Nelson fired a 1-over par 71 to cruise to a four-stroke win and the first of his three victories in golf’s major events.

The first is always sweetest. That it came in Atlanta made it even better.

“Being able to win in front of your hometown, with all your friends and family, that was icing on the cake,” Nelson said.

The win was as surprising as it was satisfying. Nelson didn’t have a great history at the PGA. He missed the cut the year before. His best finish in the five preceding Championships was 12th.

Earlier in the year, he missed the cut at the Masters, tied for 20th at the U.S. Open and didn’t compete in the British Open.

He didn’t putt well during the PGA’s first round. A rain delay gave him time to think. When the delay was over, he started to practice his stroke on the putting green. He doesn’t remember what it was, but “he found a little something” and began putting well.

Combining his flatstick with a driver that almost refused to hit it crooked, Nelson turned back Zoeller, and other big names such as Tom Kite and Jack Nicklaus, and turned a new page in his own history.

“He can still drive it straighter than 95 percent of them out there,” Zoeller said.

Nelson didn’t grow up playing golf in Acworth. He was a baseball player who thought golf was “a sissy sport.” And then a conversation he had with a golf enthusiast while Nelson was serving in the Army in Vietnam began to change his thinking.

“The guy [Ken Hummel] that told me hadn’t shaved for about two weeks and he hadn’t bathed in longer than that and he had an M-16, and I didn’t want to tell him what I thought about golf,” Nelson once famously said.

Nelson returned from Vietnam in 1968 and moved to Marietta. He enrolled at what was then called Kennesaw Junior College and began teaching himself the game as his studies neared an end. He read Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” and started to hone his swing while playing at, and then working at, Pine Tree Country Club in Kennesaw. He broke 100 the first time he played. Nine months later, he broke 70.

He qualified for the PGA Tour in 1973. Eight years later, already with four victories on the PGA Tour, Nelson won his first major.

Former AJC reporter Tom McCollister set the scene on the last hole:

While Zoeller quipped and whistled his way around the course, Nelson kept his lips tight and his purpose in focus. You might only come this way once in a major championship, before the home folks, and there was no way he was going to let it get away.

“I stood in the middle of the fairway with a four-shot and figured out how many times I could hit it in the lake and still win,” Nelson said. “I knew the championship was mine. All I had to do was hit one more shot, then one more. It was a great feeling.”

After it was over, he hugged his wife, Gayle, threw his Hogan ball to the crowd, then hugged Bert Seagraves, the man he worked for at Pine Tree Country Club. It was emotional.

Thirty years later, Nelson remembers seeing a lot of his friends and family around the green.

Nelson’s next victory came at the 1983 U.S. Open, where he edged Tom Watson by a stroke. Nelson’s last win in a major came at the 1987 PGA Championship, where he defeated Lanny Wadkins in a playoff.

Nelson said the victories didn’t affect him, though they certainly improved his status on the PGA Tour.

“I don’t know that any one tournament necessarily changed my life,” he said. “The combination of all them changed the way people view me. I don’t know how many people have won three majors in their career.

“It puts you in a position career-wise, as far as your peers are concerned, in a different category than someone who has never won any or someone who has won one.”

Nelson, 63, competes on the Champions Tour, where he has won 19 times, and works as a golf-course architect. He appreciates as a golfer and designer the changes made to the Highlands Course that he conquered 30 years ago.

“It will be a pretty demanding golf course compared to what it was,” Nelson said.

He is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, Class of 2006, and will be honored Wednesday with the PGA Distinguished Service Award, given to those “who display leadership and humanitarian qualities, including integrity, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the game of golf.”

Zoeller bounced back to win the 1984 U.S. Open, adding that major to his win at the 1979 Masters. He still lives on the farm in southern Indiana. Eighty acres grew to 200. Everything seemed to turn out OK, even though the “Bulldog” wouldn’t give up.

“I was trying to catch him,” Zoeller said. “It was just typical Larry Nelson.”