By Bob Denney, The PGA of America
ATLANTA – The night before he would compete in the 93rd PGA Championship at a course that had been very good to him 30 years ago, a humble Larry Nelson recounted his remarkable life journey after receiving the PGA Distinguished Service Award before an audience of 1,200 composed of friends, family and industry admirers.
Nelson, 63, was bestowed with The PGA of America’s highest annual honor Wednesday at The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta, following a performance by award-winning country singer Vince Gill, one of his longtime friends and the 2003 PGA Distinguished Service Award recipient.
Nelson, the owner of three major championships that include the 1981 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, thanked family, friends and PGA Life Member Bert Seagraves of Rome, Ga., who gave him his first job in professional golf and handed him a book to learn the game, Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.”
“Someone long ago told the story of a turtle perched on top of a fence post, and how he didn’t get there by himself,” said Nelson. “I feel like the turtle, but I don’t know which one is more surprised, me, or the turtle.”
Nelson said that the guideposts throughout his life began with his childhood sweetheart, Gayle, who has been his wife for 44 years.
“God put Gayle in my life to keep me humble,” said Nelson, who went on to list fellow players and his late father, who gave him invaluable pieces of advice.
“I learned anger management from Tommy Bolt,” Nelson said, “and diplomacy and patience from Gary Player. I remember one story that Gary told about playing in Scotland and behind a very slow group. Gary looked around and saw a beautiful home up on a hill. ‘How long has that house been there,’ Player asked his caddie, who responded in a perfect Scottish brogue, ‘It wasn’t there before we started.’ ”
Nelson competed Thursday afternoon in his 27th PGA Championship, with his oldest son, Drew, serving as caddie. Nelson posted an 8-over-par 78, and said that he would have youngest son, Josh, caddie on Friday.
“Looking back at all of the things that have happened to me since ’81, it's been a great ride and I kind of got to see it in pictures last night,” said Nelson of the video tribute to him during the PGA Distinguished Service Award ceremony. “It’s just kind of hard to believe.
“Things pass by. You see things and see yourself in different places. You actually can look back and enjoy. I look at everything, when I wake up in the morning; I look at everything through real eyes and kind of see things for what they are.”
Nelson’s determination to compete this week at Atlanta Athletic Club came 48 hours after he nearly had to withdraw due to a sudden infection that was treated by his longtime physician, allowing the World Golf Hall of Famer to attend the ceremony and tee it up the next day.
“I felt good enough to hit balls in the morning, and am not in pain,” said Nelson. “I wanted to play here, and my sons and many friends wanted to see me play.”
Nelson was asked Thursday afternoon what he thought of first-round leader Steve Stricker’s 63, which matched the all-time major championship lowest 18-hole round.
“Sixty-three is great,” said Nelson. “To see somebody on the golf course the same day shot somebody's age -- he shot my age today. Somebody shot my age.”
For those who know and admire Nelson, he is a wonder. The winner of two PGA Championships (1981, ’87) and the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, Nelson also won 19 times on the Champions Tour after turning 50 in 1997. He competed on three U.S. Ryder Cup Teams (1979, ’81, ’87), posting a 9-3-1 overall record.
“It’s quite an honor and I’m very humbled by it,” said Nelson of the PGA Distinguished Service Award. “I have been very blessed in my career, and have been fortunate that golf has allowed me to meet many wonderful people around the world, develop special friendships and serve others. I am very proud that The PGA of America would honor me with this award.”
Nelson’s impact in competition is complemented by his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). In 1981, he helped develop the first FCA Junior Golf Camps. In 2004, he teamed with a missionary to construct a gymnasium and add additional support to an orphanage in Lucena City, The Philippines. Closer to home, Nelson worked with fellow Champions Tour professional Joe Inman in developing The First Tee of College Park in Atlanta.
The PGA Distinguished Service Award, inaugurated in 1988, honors outstanding individuals who display leadership and humanitarian qualities, including integrity, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the game of golf.
PGA Distinguished Service Award Recipients:
1988: Herb Graffis
1989: Bob Hope
1990: No recipient
1991: The Hon. Gerald Ford
1992: Gene Sarazen
1993: Byron Nelson
1994: Arnold Palmer
1995: Patty Berg
1996: Frank Chirkinian
1997: The Hon. George H.W. Bush
1998: Paul Runyan
1999: Bill Dickey
2000: Jack Nicklaus
2001: Mark McCormack
2002: Tim Finchem
2003: Vince Gill
2004: Pete Dye
2005: Wally Uihlein
2006: Fred Ridley
2007: Jack Burke Jr.
2008: Dennis Walters
2009: William Powell
2010: Billy Casper
2011: Larry Nelson