Nelson: The Forgotten Open Champion At Oakmont

By Alex Miceli

Of all of the modern champions to have won the U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, Larry Nelson might be the most obscure. Even though he'd win three majors in a Hall of Fame career the 1981 and '87 PGA Championship and the 1983 U.S. Open Nelson's triumph at Oakmont came in relative anonymity.

Some of the obscurity can be traced to the fact that after the first round Nelson was six shots off the lead of the swashbuckling Seve Ballesteros, John Mahaffey and Bob Murphy following a 4-over-par 75. A second-round 73 would not get him any closer to notoriety or the leaders. He made the cut seven shots off the pace of Joey Rassett and John Mahaffey. What did get some attention, albeit slight, was the 65 Nelson would shoot in the third round. It was the lowest round of the championship and moved Nelson to just one shot off the lead of defending champion Tom Watson and Ballesteros.

 
Larry Nelson wasn't a favorite to win the 1983 U.S. Open but overcame the odds to do. (USGA Photo Archives)

With Watson and Ballesteros in the final pairing, the focus of everyone was on that last twosome, again leaving Nelson free to go about his business. Little did he know that it would take until Monday morning before earning the title. Heavy rains forced the championship to be concluded on Monday and Oakmont didn't have nearly as many spectators on the grounds that morning.

In the final round, Nelson continued his torrid pace, firing a 3-under 32 on the first nine. Still, the Georgian trailed Watson, who also was playing well that final day, at least over the first nine holes, where he posted a 4-under 31 to increase his advantage over Nelson and a fading Ballesteros.

Eventually both players cooled off, but Watson's game went in the freezer with bogeys at 10 and 12. And when Nelson made his first birdie on the second nine at the par-4 14th, the two were tied.

Mother Nature then arrived in the form of lightning.

"We had to stop," said Nelson. "Because I actually saw a flash of lightning, I was putting on 15 [and] I kind of hurried my putt. I wish I would have had that putt over again. Well I don't wish it any more, but I was thinking that then. And I think that's the hardest thing. I think I had probably more people ask me, what did you do from the time that the siren went off Sunday afternoon until that morning?"

Most people still thought Watson was still in the driver's seat. They thought Nelson would be affected by the missed putt. Nelson, however, didn't dwell on the mistake. His two small boys were with him and they played ping pong on the Atari that was at their rented house. That kept his mind off Monday's golf.

When he arrived at the course on Monday morning, Nelson had a plan. He envisioned every shot for the last three holes and while he would not execute it perfectily, it would be good enough.

"There was no wind and it rained so the fairways were soft," said Nelson reflecting on the course conditions. "I figured out every shot I was going to have to hit basically. I knew I was going to have to hit 4-wood off of 16. I knew I was going to hit 3-iron off of 17. I knew I was going to hit 3-wood, 4-wood into 18. I already knew that that was what I was going to do."

Nelson's 4-wood on the 16th hole didn't cut and he hit it 60 feet from the flagstick, just to the left edge of the green.

"They were just as smooth as they could be," said Nelson of the greens. "So when it went over the last little rise, the little down slope there, I knew it was going to go in. So 15 feet from the hole it was just dead center."

Nelson was excited. He owned the lead for the first time and now was left with a relatively routine 3-iron tee shot to the short par-4 17th hole.

"I remember there were probably a 100 people sitting up in the grand stands on the tee," said Nelson of the atmosphere around the 17th tee. "I heard the crowd of a hundred people, clap and everything. And I really got excited. And so walking from the 16th green over to the 17th tee, granted, I only had to hit a 3-iron, but I was trying to get myself toned down so I could hit the 3-iron solid. And I hit it fat."

Nelson planned on hitting a pitching wedge or sand wedge for his second shot, but instead had to hit 8-iron, losing any advantage to make birdie and applying more pressure to Watson.

Nelson recovered his composure at 18th tee, hitting the large green in two shots, but would make what seemed a costly mistake at the time, three-putting from 25 feet and opening the door for Watson.

"I heard the announcer say that that was the slowest putt," Nelson said as he walked from the 18th green to the scoring tent. "I left it about six feet short and missed it."

While Nelson was tallying his card he actually still had a one shot lead, because just before Nelson three putted, Watson's attempt to recover from a pulled 9-iron at the 17th failed and he bogeyed, giving Nelson a short-lived two-stroke lead that became one after the three-putt.

"They just had the tent behind the 18th green," said Nelson. "So after we got through with our scorecard we just stayed there. There was nowhere to go. So my wife and I were sitting there watching Tom finish."

Watson would fly the 18th green in two and after taking a free drop for interference from the grandstands, needed to hole his chip to tie Nelson. Many at that point could remember Watson making a similar chip just a year ago at the 17th hole at Pebble Beach to snatch the title from Jack Nicklaus, but Nelson was unfazed as the chip sailed by. Watson still made the 40-foot come-backer for par, but it didn't matter.

"My wife had the most astonished look on her face because she thought he made that long putt to tie me," Nelson said. "It was actually a pretty comforting feeling knowing that he's got to pitch this in. It was not an easy pitch. And even though what had happened on 17 the year before [when] he chipped in on Nicklaus, I still felt pretty good. I mean the worst I could come out of this was a tie."

Instead Nelson won his second major in three years and his only U.S. Open.

"I think about it a lot of times when they introduce me as the 83 U.S. Open champion," said Nelson, who failed in his attempt to qualify for the 2007 Open at a sectional in Ball Ground, Ga., on June 4. "I think now that they're going back this year, when I played there in 83 looking at some of the winners that had won they were so old, you think about Nicklaus and Hogan when I won in 83. And now they play here in 2007 I'm the old guy. I'm the one that won it way back in 83."

Alex Miceli is a writer for the Golf Press Association whose work has appeared previously on www.usopen.com.