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Despite their disagreement over yardages at the 1978 U.S. Open, Larry Nelson and his caddie, Herb Stevens, remain great friends. (Getty Images)

Nelson, caddie learn hard lesson in altitude

At the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Englewood, Colo., three-time major winner Larry Nelson and his caddie found out that playing in altitude can cause all kinds of problems.

By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer

PARKER, Colo. -- It's been 32 years since the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver.

Even still, Herb Stevens remembers it like it was yesterday.

Today, Stevens is a meteorologist known around the country as "The Skiing Weatherman." He owns a forecasting service called Grass Roots Weather that provides forecasts for about 45 superintendents around the country, including those at Muirfield, Medinah and Congressional. He even provides forecasts for the head groundskeeper at the White House.

Long before all of that, however, the Rhode Island resident was traveling the country as a PGA Tour caddie for World Golf Hall of Fame member and three-time major champion, Larry Nelson.

An accomplished golfer in his own right, Stevens has made appearances in one U.S. Amateur and three British Amateurs. PGA.com recently contacted Stevens to utilize his meteorological expertise for a story about the effects of playing at altitude, which those competing in this week's Senior PGA Championship at Colorado Golf Club -- including Nelson -- will encounter. 

Little did we know what we were in for.

Aware of the fact that Stevens was a solid golfer, we first asked him about his personal experiences of playing at altitude and the changes he noticed. That's when he hit us with this:

"The main experience I have at altitude is the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills," he said. "I caddied there for Larry Nelson. I remember we had to tack on about 7-10 percent to each club. I have a funny story there that Larry and I were reminiscing about when we spoke a month or so ago. It was the last hole of the first round in that U.S. Open. I gave him a yardage off the wrong sprinkler. In five years and probably 19,000 holes with Larry, I vividly remember missing three sprinkler yardages for him. This was one of them."

Trusting his looper, Nelson went with the yardage Stevens provided and the result, as you can imagine, left a lot to be desired.

"To put it lightly," Stevens said, "the next day, Larry was still steaming mad at me."

Though Stevens took responsibility for the yardage blunder, Nelson continued to give him the silent treatment. Everything Stevens said went in one of Nelson's ears and out the other.

"I gave him a yardage at the first hole," Stevens remembered. "He ignored me. I gave him a yardage on the second hole. He ignored me. At about the third or fourth hole I was starting to get upset about how cranky he was being."

Then, something happened.

"I remember it like this -- he had 180 yards left to one of those double-decker greens," Stevens said. "The pin was on the first deck. I gave him the yardage -- 180 -- and he ignored me yet again and pulled a 5-iron on his own. He just didn't buy the notion that elevation made a difference when everyone else was saying that difference was 7-10 percent. I thought 10 percent was a good number.

"When Larry swung, that ball hadn't finished being compressed when I yelled, 'Get down!'" Stevens laughed. "Let me tell you, it was a Manny Ramirez moon-shot over the Monster and onto Mass Pike! The people behind the green looked up over their heads and it went about 15 yards over them right into a Colorado Blue Spruce. Larry settled down, but missed the cut. Even after all these years, he doesn't get as much of a laugh out of it as I do, but he did manage to chuckle about it."

Nelson, who won 10 times in his Hall of Fame PGA Tour career, conceded on Wednesday that Stevens recalls the story much clearer than he does. One thing Nelson hadn't forgotten after all these years, however, was that missed sprinkler head.

"I wasn't keen on a whole lot of advice from Herb after that," Nelson said with a grin. "It was early in the second round, I don't remember exactly the yardage or anything like that, the only thing I remember is I hit it 20 yards over the green and he kept his mouth shut. He says he thought I had the wrong club, but of course that's his story afterwards. You never know. But, hindsight is also a lot better than the present, isn't it?"

Stevens stayed on the bag for a few more years, plodding along and helping Nelson to pick up two Tour wins -- one at Inverarry in 1979, which was Nelson's first career win on his way to No. 2 on the money list that year; and another in 1980 at the Atlanta Classic.

Additionally, Stevens caddied for Nelson at the 1979 Ryder Cup at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V., when Nelson won all five of his matches. To this day, Nelson remains the only player in Ryder Cup history to win all five of his matches in a single Ryder Cup. Furthermore, four of his five points came from Ryder Cup superstar Seve Ballesteros, including singles. At the time, Ballesteros and Nelson's teammate Tom Watson were the two best players in the world.

To this day, Stevens and Nelson remain good friends.

"He is the finest man I have ever met," Stevens said. "I cherish those five years we spent roaming the fairways."

Nelson, winner of the 1981 and 1987 PGA Championship, said he believed the issue at Cherry Hills came as a result of his preparation for the tournament. Nelson played all of his practice rounds in the morning, but when he played in the afternoon during competition, the ball traveled a lot further.

"That made it kind of difficult to pick clubs," he said.

At Colorado Golf Club on Wednesday, Nelson said that time of day was something he took into consideration while preparing this week. Even still, he isn't so sure how it will help.

"It's different and especially if it's windy," he said. "Then you've got to factor in two unknowns. Depending on the grade of the whole, you have to decide how much of a percentage to dial back and then there's the wind. You're never sure if you have the right club. I think that really keeps the scores a little but higher. It's hard to try to fly it over a bunker or leave it short of a green if you don't know exactly how far the ball is going."

With all of that, it sounds like Nelson would serve himself well to call Stevens to get the latest forecasts this week. And if Stevens bogeys the forecast like he did that sprinkler head in 1978, well, Nelson just can't be upset.

After all, meteorologists get paid to be wrong.

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