PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Larry Nelson of Marietta, Ga., who began playing golf after first serving his country in time of war, and became a multiple major champion, a spokesman for community service and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, has been named the recipient of the 2011 PGA Distinguished Service Award.
Nelson, 63, will receive the Association's highest annual honor in conjunction with the 93rd PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. The award presentation will be conducted Aug. 10, at The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta.
"Larry Nelson is one of golf's consummate champions, who performed at the highest level on many of the game's grandest stages and has carried himself with dignity and grace to become one of the sport's most respected ambassadors," said PGA of America President Allen Wronowski. "Having begun the game late in life, Larry's journey in golf is truly remarkable. He served our country valiantly in time of war, and returned home to dedicate himself to excellence in his sport and become a spokesperson for treating one another with respect. Larry's talent on the course matches his ability to connect with others both in and outside our industry. Through this effort, he has devoted much of his time to the welfare of those who would otherwise never pick up a golf club. We are truly honored to present him with the 2011 PGA Distinguished Service Award."
A multi-sport athlete in high school, Nelson did not begin playing golf until he was 21, and only after returning in 1968 following a two-year term in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He honed his golf swing by reading the words of a legend, Ben Hogan, in "The Five Fundamentals of Golf." Nelson broke 100 the first time he played and broke 70 within nine months. He declared himself professional in 1970 and advanced through the PGA Tour Qualifying School in the fall of 1973.
He went on to win the 1981 PGA Championship in his home state at Atlanta Athletic Club; the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club; and the 1987 PGA Championship at PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. In all, Nelson has won 10 times on Tour. Upon turning 50 in 1997, Nelson went on to win 19 Champions Tour events, and in 2006 was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Nelson competed on three U.S. Ryder Cup Teams (1979, '81, '87), posting a 9-3-1 overall record. He shares with the late Gardner Dickinson (1967) the record for the best performance of any rookie for either an American or European Team, finishing 5-0-0 in the '79 Ryder Cup at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
"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 around the world, develop special friendship and serve others. I am very proud that The PGA of America would honor me with this award."
Nelson made an impact on Tour and within golf's junior ranks through 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 the Philippines. Closer to home, Nelson worked with fellow Champions Tour professional Joe Inman in developing The First Tee of College Park in Atlanta.
Nelson was born Sept. 10, 1947, in Fort Payne, Ala., to Vernon and Rudell Nelson. His family later lived briefly in Detroit, where his father worked in a motor company. The family moved to Kennesaw, Ga., when Nelson was 5, where he developed into a standout baseball and basketball player in high school. During his prep career, Nelson pitched for a Georgia Colt League championship team.
"I played all other sports than golf; I thought golf was a sissy sport," said Nelson. "I learned differently about golf after coming back from the Army. I put in a lot of work, got great advice from PGA Professional Bert Seagraves (now of Rome, Ga.), who came out to watch me swing. I spent six years working hard on my game, and two years as an assistant to Bert."
Nelson's first PGA Tour victory came in the 1979 Jackie Gleason Inverarry Classic, and he included his family in two memorable victories as a senior: capturing Del Webb Father/Son Challenge titles with sons Drew in 2005 and '08, and with Josh in 2007.
Nelson and his wife, Gayle, live in Marietta, Ga. Their sons each live in the Atlanta area, where Josh is performing ministry work with Links Players International, and Drew is employed in web design and by a golf outing company.
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.