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October 30, 2006

Larry Nelson


LARRY NELSON: You did not even know -- all you really wanted to do was get home. Anything beyond that was kind of extra.
I mean, I can remember thinking that I wanted to come back and see my wife. I got married in June and then left for Vietnam the next March, so I was really excited about getting home and seeing her. But the next best thing was a cheeseburger, french fries and a chocolate milkshake. That was kind of on my mind a lot.
But what I was going to do when I got home, I actually had no clue. It was such a weird war, weird in a lot of respects. But Vietnam, you could go over there, be in the middle of the jungle, which I was, I applied for an early out to go back to school, had 101 days left in the country, and I get this letter from the government out in the middle of nowhere saying that I had been accepted for an early out.
So I went from 101 days to 11, I got on the next helicopter and told my first sergeant I'm gone, I'm outta here. So I went back into base camp and stayed there until I actually left the country. So it was strange.
And then I came back home, went back to school but worked, and this happened to be at a time when Lockheed was building the C5A, that huge transport plane, and I was in the mockup and I was an illustrator for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. We were having to work seven days a week, ten hours a day, and I was going to school three nights a week for three hours a night. It didn't take long for the newness of being home to wear me out (laughter).

Q. How old were you then?
LARRY NELSON: At that time I was 21. Got drafted when I was 19, came back home actually before my 21st birthday.

Q. Have your golf travels ever taken you back to Southeast Asia?
LARRY NELSON: No, I want to go back. Just great people. I mean, we had some great experiences with the people over there, and I always wanted to go back in peace time.
Beautiful beaches, absolutely just gorgeous beaches. You go straight from the beaches in some parts of Vietnam to where it's just right up the mountains, just straight up the mountains. Really pretty views. I'm sure we weren't looking at the views at that time, but there could be some very pretty views.

Q. Can a player emerge on the national stage like you did once in today's game, or is it just impossible to do? I mean, you had so many experiences before golf. Now it seems like all great players are bred to be great players.
LARRY NELSON: You know, it's hard to say that it would never happen. I think it's much more difficult now. I think whereas probably when I went to the Tour school, qualifying school, they were taking 23 spots, and I honestly felt like because I played in Tampa on the mini-Tours for a year and finished like in the Top 10 of their Money List, and then there was another mini-Tour on the West Coast that had the same type of deal.
And I honestly felt like -- they were giving 23 cards, so I felt like if I played what I've been playing like the rest of the year, then I should get one of those 23 cards based on numbers.
Now if they did that, there would probably be 1,000 on both coasts. There's just more numbers of good players. Then you could kind of stand out.
I think it was much more of a qualifying week-to-week process then. Now I think it's almost diluted, the Tour is, at this point. It's really hard to rise above a certain level because I think there's so many people at that same level. And I think the Tour recycles the same guys over and over again, just by the way the Tour is set up.
Once you qualify for the Tour, if you lose your card, then you go to the Nationwide. You can stay there forever, I think, or for a pretty good while. So it's really hard for a young player to kind of get into that.
Much different when I was playing because each year we had a big turnover, only 60 exempt players, so I think you had a new group of people every year, so the opportunity was easier then than it is now.

Q. Would you like to see a smaller number of exempt players?
LARRY NELSON: Honestly, I think it would be the best for the quality of our Tour if that was the case. I think you would have new life more often. That's just -- looking back, people have asked me about the Ryder Cup Matches, what's the difference there, and I was looking at -- I don't know if you've had the opportunity to look at the 1981 Ryder Cup team that we had. Every one of the people on the team except for one had won a major championship, 11 out of the 12 guys, which you're pretty -- in '83 I won the U.S. Open and wasn't even on the team. So there is a difference.
But I think because of the amount of turnover, because you would have the opportunity to play -- a lot more people would have the opportunity to play against the best in the world, and I think the only reason that I was able to get as good as I did as quick as I did is because I didn't have any other option. Either I had to get better at the level I was, or I was gone.
Now you can not be as good as you need to be and you just go down to the next level.

Q. There's a quote from Sam Snead in the museum and it says, "What you have to overcome is fear." Did you see it that way?
LARRY NELSON: I was too ignorant to be afraid, I guess. It's the best way I can describe it. I'm going to tell a couple stories tonight hopefully if I remember them about starting off early, and I can kind of tell you because if I tell you again tonight then it won't bother you.
But when I started on the Tour, I had only played in one 72-hole event, period, when I qualified, and I finished 2nd at the Florida Open in that event. I had not played on any grass other than Bermudagrass, and except for my stint in the Army when I went out to Texas had never been outside of -- well, I did go to Chattanooga, Tennessee, so I went to Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, and that was it.
So none of my family had ever played the game, none of them. So we were -- at the first tournament that all my parents, my wife's parents and my parents were at, was at Tallahassee, and my wife told them, she not knowing much about golf, either, she says, "Don't ever get in his line," when I was putting or whatever, "don't ever stand between him and the hole."
So I hit it up on the first green and I knew my parents and my parents-in-law were there, and I was getting ready to putt and I was bending over looking at the hole and I looked up at this trash can, and they have the trash cans that are about this wide, and I look up and right behind the hole, my two parents and my wife's parents, their heads are sticking out from behind this trash can (laughter) at different levels.
So that was the experience that we all had when I went out on the Tour. It took a long time. My father didn't start playing the game until he was in his 50s and I had already been on the Tour for a few years.

Q. Can you attribute one person to making a difference in your game, getting you started?
LARRY NELSON: Yeah, it would have to be -- well, there were a lot of people along the way, but the first person would have had to have been Burt Seabreeze at Pinetree Country Club. When I came back from Vietnam after I worked the 70-hour weeks and went to school nine hours a week, however many nights it was, my parents-in-law, my wife's parents, decided that they could see me working myself to death. They got together and said, okay, we'll give you $300 or $400 a month, whatever it was, which was enough so that I could work -- go to school and finish my last subject, which was -- I can't remember what it was, but I went from 8:00 to 9:00 in the morning, and the rest of the day I just had to play golf or do something. And golf, as you know, a lot of you that know people that play golf, it takes a long time and it fills up a lot of space.
I would go to the Country Club, was able to join for little or nothing, and I would play golf and hang around until my wife got in at 6:00 o'clock in the afternoon. He took a liking to me because he knew that I had just started the game, he really liked the way I swung at it and he could see some improvement, even though it was just in the month or so that I was there.
So he gave me Ben Hogan's book, he loved Ben Hogan, he said, "Read this one, see what you think." He would kind of watch and make sure I was doing it.
And being an analytical person, I was a math major in school, if I would have stayed there one more quarter I would have majored in math, so I took it the same way I did a lot of other math subjects. You have to learn the basics and then you can add to it.
So each one of the fundamentals I did until I could go to the next one and I didn't have to think about it anymore.
He gave me the opportunity to play, practice and kind of watched over me, actually hired me as an assistant and I worked there for two years but I didn't get a chance to play. Everybody knows assistants don't play very much, so I didn't get to play for two years. But at Pinetree there, the sponsors, some people I saw maybe I had potential and they sent me down to Florida.

Q. Did your wife know you were playing golf all day?
LARRY NELSON: She did. Well, it kept me out of anything else. She didn't want me to go to the pool hall. She liked the fact I would play golf and not go to the pool hall. I was a pretty good pool player, too.

Q. A lot has been said over these past few months about the lack of 20-something winners on the Tour. You and Vijay are going in tonight to the Hall of Fame and neither one of you won a tournament in your 20s. Are we too quick to judge? Are there Hall of Famers out there that we just haven't seen win yet?
LARRY NELSON: I'm sure there are. Nobody would have picked someone to do what Tiger has done by now. I can remember interviews 15 years ago about anybody ever catching Jack, and the answer was it's possible but not probable. In this game I have never put anything past anybody.
I think that -- if you say things about what people are playing for and that kind of stuff, it makes you sound like it's sour grapes, and I don't think anybody here -- I know they kind of accused Tom Watson of sour grapes because he said that the guys were playing for too much money and all that kind of stuff.
But honestly, I don't understand people giving up tournaments, not going to tournaments where last place is $100,000 and first prize is a million. It blows a lot of our minds that played golf, and you can play for 72 holes and not be paid. They only paid 70 places, and if 75 guys made the cut back when we started, you wouldn't get paid. You could play 72 holes, turn in a score and not make any money.
For a lot of us you have to kind of look at where we came from, and we had to buy range balls, we had to rent our courtesy cars and we had all this kind of stuff. So you think, well, if somebody is making $30 million or $60 million or they're being paid $2 million to go play in a tournament, then how much does it mean to win the TOUR Championship or how much does it mean to win this tournament over here or how much does it mean to win the Ryder Cup Matches? Where does the importance come into the game?
So it's not sour grapes, I can tell you. I'm happy with what I've made. I've been very blessed, very fortunate with the money I've made out here. But I think it does in some way take away from what's going on now, and it's a long way to answer the question about the 20, but if you can make $2 and a half, $3 million and finish third, is there a lot of incentive there? That's a question more than an answer.

Q. What do you think that being a professional golfer has given you as a person?
LARRY NELSON: Has given me as a person? I'll tell you what, every morning or every day when I go out on the first tee until I finish the 18th hole, it's a life. It is a total life between those -- from the first hole to the 18th hole because you're going to have good shots, you're going to have bad shots, you're going to be happy, you're going to be sad, you're going to want to just play forever and you want to quit on the next hole.
I mean, it's just a little mini-life every round of golf you play, and if you can't wake up the next morning and have a new life, this game will kill you. It will really drive you up a wall and you won't compete very well.
I always thought -- guys told me a long time ago, if you're real dumb and had a good pair of hands you could really play this game. I think a lot of us are blessed with not a whole lot of smarts and a short memory.

Q. Given what you were saying about the money a little while ago, and Vijay will be in here in a little bit and here's a guy who has won between $9 and $10 million at times and works like he doesn't have two nickels to rub together, is that incentive?
LARRY NELSON: I think there's something inside of people that will be turned on by it and other people will be turned off by it. It really has to do with personalities as much as anything else. But I think there are a lot of -- there's a segment of society or a segment of people who are happy with mediocrity if it pays. I'm not saying that they don't work. That's not what I'm saying. I think that they desire to maybe be the No. 1 money winner, I'm not saying that they don't. I think they probably do.
But I think if you've got that to fall back on, I think there's something that may be missing there. You look at Tiger, Tiger works as hard as anybody. Tiger wants to win every time he plays; Vijay is the same way; Ernie Els is the same way; Phil Mickelson is the same way.
It's not the top guys, not the top guys that are winning, it's the guys that are your next stars, your under 20s or whatever.
I mean, I can tell you as much as I'm sitting here right now from when I first came out on the Tour that somebody asked me why I was out there, and I said, "I want to make a living." I mean, I didn't have at that point any other way of making a living, so I had to get better to make a living.
But if you can make a living without getting better, then I don't know if I'd have the same incentive.
JANE FADER: I have one question. Have you seen your Hall of Fame exhibit?
LARRY NELSON: Yes, I have.
JANE FADER: What do you feel is your most prized possession or possessions in that exhibit?
LARRY NELSON: Probably the picture of my father in there. Let me just tell you this. I talked to Jack Peter when I first got inducted, and he says, "We want to change the way the exhibits are done. We want to be able to tell the whole story of the person. We want to tell what's important to you."
Mine was broken down probably in four areas. I think that was what we did, four areas, my golf, my family, my faith and the military service.
So they did a great job. When we gave them 301 articles or items when they left the house and didn't know how they were going to display it, what they were going to put in there, and then when I interviewed about each and every article, I didn't know how that was going to come to, but I spent ten minutes there this morning reading all the information, looking at all the pieces, and it's very reflective and it's very emotional.
There's a picture of my father and I there, and he's leaning over whispering something to me. This was the kind of man that he was.
When I was in little league when I first started playing, he wanted to protect my arm. I had a great curve ball in little league, great curve ball. But he didn't want me to throw curves all the time, and he says, "You've got a good curve ball but I'm going to sit over here and I'm going to let you know when you can throw one." So I would watch him, each pitch I would look, and if he put down the two fingers then I could throw a curve ball. But if he didn't then I didn't. But I knew the reason why was because I wanted to protect my arm, and he just wanted me to know that he loved me and he cared for me.
So that's what this picture kind of signifies to me is that he was always behind the backstop or whatever, but he was always caring about what happened to me on the golf course and protective -- nobody could say anything bad about me because he would give them a hard time. It bothered him so much because he didn't know golf. I was the first person in the family to play golf. It bothered him that he couldn't, but he learned real quick.
That didn't stop him from giving me advice, but he didn't know what to tell me at that point, so he would listen to the telecast and the commentator would say, "Well, this is really a speed putt." That would be what the commentator would say. So my dad would listen to that. When I'd get home -- of course I had missed the putt, so when I'd get home, first thing he would do is I would call him on the telephone, and he would say, "You need to speed putt more."
So that was it. But he put everything that he could to try to help, and I just really appreciated it. There are a couple other Vernon stories. That's the reason that pictures means the most to me.

Q. Probably a good thing Johnny Miller wasn't commentating back then.
LARRY NELSON: He kind of still got mad at Johnny, I think.
But yeah, you're right. That has changed, too, the commentating has changed. When Dave Marr was commentating there was never really anything bad said about any particular person. I guess everything has gotten a little edgy these days.
But mom and dad always told me if I couldn't anything good about somebody, don't say anything, so sometimes I'm pretty quiet.

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