Oakmont Lookback: Nelson's Monday Magic

1983 U.S. Open: Nelson's Monday Magic

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This story recounting the 1983 U.S. Open Championship, when Larry Nelson set a championship record with a 10-under-par 132 over his final 36 holes to surpass defending champion Tom Watson, is the 14th in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, which is hosting its ninth U.S. Open June 16-19.

Nearly 33 years after his record-breaking weekend at Oakmont Country Club, 1983 U.S. Open champion Larry Nelson sat in a room named after him at Atlanta Country Club in Marietta, Ga. Surrounded by mementos from his hall-of-fame career, he reflected on what was a dramatic – and at times volatile and unpredictable – five days in western Pennsylvania. 

Having entered the weekend seven strokes behind 36-hole co-leaders John Mahaffey and Joey Rassett, both of whom would fade from contention, Nelson went on an unprecedented and since unmatched tear to close out the U.S. Open. The Alabama native, who grew up in suburban Atlanta, played the last 36 holes in 10-under 132, getting through the last 27 holes in just 99 strokes, including his memorable 60-foot winding putt on the 70th hole that propelled him to a one-stroke victory over defending champion Tom Watson. Yet, when he looks back on that week, other elements of his win also stand out.

“This really should be what the U.S. Open is all about, someone taking up the game late. I didn’t do the junior golf thing, didn’t do all this stuff that is supposed to make a U.S. Open champion,” said Nelson. “This is more like a ‘Rocky’ story.”

Indeed, Nelson’s road to becoming one of the elite players of his era – he also won two PGA Championships – was anything but traditional. He didn’t take up golf until returning from a tour in Vietnam with the Army at the age of 22. A fellow soldier had inspired the former college baseball and basketball player to give the game a shot, and, not long after, he found himself back at home taking just one college class, one that got out at 9 a.m. every day. He went across the street to Pine Tree Country Club, purchased a junior membership and immersed himself in the game, figuring that golf was a good way to spend 10 hours each day until his wife returned home from work.

Aided by his study of Ben Hogan’s book, “The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” Nelson was breaking par in less than a year, and caught the eye of the club’s head professional, Bert Seagraves, who ultimately hired him as an assistant pro. Two years later, after just missing out on a head professional position at a nearby club, several Pine Tree members convinced him to try playing competitively for a living, agreeing to sponsor him. Just over a year later, in 1973, he earned his PGA Tour card, with just one 72-hole tournament under his belt, and an unlikely career was born.

A decade later, Nelson was competing at Oakmont as a major champion, having captured the 1981 PGA Championship in front of a supportive crowd at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Following pedestrian opening rounds of 75 and 73, Nelson put himself within a stroke of the leaders with a third-round 65 that was sparked by an approach shot to 3 feet on the par-4 fifth hole. Nelson reeled off seven birdies over his last 14 holes.

Heavy rains had plagued Oakmont on Friday afternoon, causing  delays that forced some competitors to complete their second rounds on Saturday morning. The weather had undeniably softened the golf course, but Nelson’s performance in Round 3 was still four strokes better than anyone else in the field.

“Nelson's score was no fluke; it was the result of precise iron play and extremely good tee shots,” wrote Robert Sommers in the August 1983 issue of Golf Journal. “Over the [last 32 holes] he missed only three greens and three fairways. His iron play was superb. On 16 of those 32 holes, his approaches were within 15 feet of the hole, and on nine holes he was within 10 feet of the cup with his shots to the greens. This was first-class golf.”

Nelson’s “Rocky” analogy was certainly a fair one, however, as the Apollo Creed in this story was none other than Watson, already a seven-time major champion who had outdueled Jack Nicklaus a year earlier at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. Watson had been steady throughout the championship heading into Sunday, having carded back-to-back rounds of 70 after opening with 72. It was good enough to put him at the top of the leader board through 54 holes along with Spain’s Seve Ballesteros, a three-time major winner who had claimed the Masters two months prior. Nelson was in the group ahead of them along with Calvin Peete, and knew that the odds were stacked against him.

“You’ve got Watson and Ballesteros, who are arguably two of the best players in the world at that time, ahead of you. [Oakmont was] probably the number one golf course in the world at that time, probably the most difficult,” Nelson recounted. “I was certainly the underdog in that situation. The golf course was ahead of me and Watson and Seve were. So it was fun the last day.”

Ballesteros shot even-par 36 on his outward nine on Sunday. Generally, the 54-hole co-leader of a U.S. Open would take that and run. On this particular Sunday, however, that put him all but out of contention by the time he reached the 10th tee. Watson was having what looked to be a final round for the ages, with six birdies on the first nine en route to a 5-under 31. Nelson was holding his own with a 3-under 33, but that still left him three strokes off the pace.

“When you’re going out trying to win the Open and you’re one shot behind the guy who shoots 31 on the front nine, you don't feel like your chances are very good, especially if it's someone like Watson,” Nelson said. “His 31 on the front showed me that, hey, well, it can be done, and I wasn't playing all that bad either. I knew that if I played well and he didn’t play so good that I had a real opportunity to win.”

Those words would prove prophetic for Nelson. Watson, who looked like he might threaten the championship’s 18-hole scoring record of 63, set by Johnny Miller 10 years earlier at Oakmont, lost a stroke on No. 10 after his tee shot found Oakmont’s unforgiving rough. The long par-5 12th would also prove problematic for Watson with a missed 4-foot par putt, the first of two key short misses. Suddenly, things were tightening up.

Nelson, now just one stroke back, pounced by hitting it to a foot on the par-4 14th hole to erase what was left of Watson’s lead. Another solid approach shot on No. 15 left Nelson with a 9-foot putt for another birdie, but that went begging. It was shaping up to be a classic U.S. Open Sunday until the weather once again intervened.

A thunderstorm arrived as Nelson was finishing No. 15 and Watson playing 14, which halted play for the day. The dramatic conclusion would have to wait for Monday. That situation might have unnerved some competitors, but not the military veteran from Georgia.

“There was never a feeling of nervousness. It was just a normal Sunday night with my children and with [wife] Gayle,” Nelson recounted. “I had thought about the last three holes that I was going to play. What shots I was going to hit and what clubs I was going to hit, not if I was going to play well.”

Nelson’s first stroke once the sirens restarted play on Monday morning was a 4-wood on the par-3 16th hole, which settled about 60 feet left of the hole. Enter the famous putt. Enter Nelson’s sprint toward the hole as the ball dropped in, giving him the outright lead for the first time. Enter his place in U.S. Open lore. Nelson’s three-putt bogey on the 72nd hole kept the door slightly ajar for Watson, but another short miss, this time from 5 feet on No. 17, and a wild approach shot on No. 18, would put things out of reach. Unlike Rocky, a sequel wasn’t necessary. The challenger had prevailed by one stroke, breaking Gene Sarazen’s 51-year-old scoring record for the last 36 holes in the process.

Watson finished alone in second. Gil Morgan, who quietly shot 3-under 68 on Sunday, jumped to solo third. Ballesteros settled into a tie for fourth with Peete.

So what was the most incredible fact about Nelson’s performance that week? Up until his win at Oakmont, the 1983 season had not been kind to him, with just six made cuts in 16 starts and only one top 10. He had been struggling with his putting, and decided that week to adopt the method of hovering his putter just off the ground instead of grounding it at address.

“It's not hard to try something new when the other stuff is not working, and I looked at all these tournaments kind of the same way. The only difference is that the rough is higher, the greens are faster,” said Nelson. “From tee to green, it was my kind of golf course. If I could figure out how to make some putts then I thought I could do well.”

As it happened, Nelson had plenty of time to practice his new putting method. Until Tuesday afternoon, that’s all he could do, as his golf clubs were lost in transit. Even the bad breaks worked out in his favor that week.

From Larry Nelson, the beginner golfer at the age of 22, to being able to sit in the Larry Nelson Room discussing his distinguished golf career. A storyline that is just about as unique to him as was his memorable week at Oakmont.

Scott Lipsky is the manager of websites and digital platforms for the USGA. Email him at slipsky@usga.org.