Not-so-manic Monday: Nelson recalls upset win at Oakmont
By Stan Awtrey, Special to PGATOUR.COM
It didn’t happen on Friday the 13th and it didn’t involve a ladder or a black cat. But 30 years ago Larry Nelson got a piece of news that could only be considered bad luck.
The message? I’m sorry, Mr. Nelson. The airline has lost your golf clubs.
That’s never good news to receive. It’s especially troubling for a professional golfer who uses those clubs to make a living. It’s even more troubling when the news comes on the eve of a major championship.
Those were the glad tidings Larry Nelson received when he arrived at the 1983 U.S. Open, though. He was at Oakmont, but his clubs were in limbo. Somehow he remained focused.
“All I could do on Tuesday and Wednesday was putt,” Nelson said. “I didn’t get my clubs until Wednesday. I was just happy they showed up, but I couldn’t get ready for the Open that week.”
So Nelson was able to spend the unanticipated free time with his family at the nearby house they rented for the week. He remembers there was a Pong video game at the home and that his two boys enjoyed bouncing the electronic blocks off each other.
Nelson kept his calm while he waited for his clubs, preparing the best he could. In the end, the lost golf clubs turned out to be a minor storyline. Nelson won his second of three majors that week and established himself as one of the game’s best.
Nelson had a reputation for being an average-to-short hitter off the tee. And Oakmont is a long golf course. Still, the late bloomer from Kennesaw, Ga., didn’t try to change his game. He focused on being accurate and playing smart.
“I hit a lot of 3-woods off the tee, even if it mean I had to hit a 4-wood into the green,” he said. “Oakmont is a long golf course and I knew every day I would hit 3-wood and 4-wood on a lot of holes. I just did what I needed to do.”
Nelson eventually found himself dueling with Tom Watson. A storm on Sunday caused the final round to be postponed. It wasn’t completed until Monday. Nelson was staring at a 60-foot putt on No. 16 when he returned to the course.
“It was a long, downhill putt,” Nelson said. “And when we came out there on Monday morning, the greens were perfect. Nobody had been on them. All I had to do was hit the putt; I had already accomplished the hard part. Making that putt isn’t something you expect, but it was nice when it went in.”
Nelson had spent a lot of time on the putting green that day. He only had three holes to finish and already had mapped out each club he was going to use.
“Now I just had to do it,” he said.
He did it in style. His final-round 67, coupled with a third-round 65, broke a 51-year-old record for scoring over the final 36 holes.
The only sour memory was the Monday finish. The huge crowds that had been at Oakmont didn’t return. People had to get back to work. Others had already booked their travel and were on their way home. Nelson was robbed of the raucous ovation that normally awaits the winner as he walks up the 72nd fairway.
“Winning it on Monday was sort of anticlimactic,” he said. “It was thrilling for me and I was fortunate to have my wife and two children there. I enjoyed it as much as I could enjoy it at the time. I was 36 and I still had a lot of career left and probably didn’t appreciate it as much.”
And while winning his first major, the 1981 PGA at the Atlanta Athletic Club, was meaningful because it occurred in his hometown and gave him the exemption to get his career established, the U.S. Open victory solidified him as one of the game’s best players.
“It’s great to win a national championship in anything, any sport,” Nelson said. “To win the U.S. Open and do it on one of the hardest golf courses in the world meant a lot.”
Nelson, now 65, still fondly remembers his victory at Oakmont.
“It’s interesting that the two PGA Championships and the U.S. Open mean more to me now than they did at the time,” he said.
Even if he didn’t get that triumphant stroll to the 72nd green.