Longtime Georgia resident and successful professional golfer Larry Nelson has won ten Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour events, including three major championships, as well as nineteen Champions Tour events, among others. He has played on three Ryder Cup teams. In 1990 he was elected to the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, and in 2006 he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Larry Gene Nelson was born in Fort Payne, Alabama, on September 10, 1947, to Rudell Fant and Vernon Earl Nelson. The family moved to Marietta when Larry was young. He and his wife, Gayle, have two sons, Drew and Josh.
He attended Kennesaw Junior College (later Kennesaw State University), then served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War (1964-73). Nelson’s wife bought him a set of golf clubs as a Christmas gift in 1969, and Nelson soon displayed a natural ability for playing the game. He taught himself by reading well-known golfer Ben Hogan’s book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf (1957). Nelson broke 100 the first time he played 18 holes, and broke 70 within nine months.
After turning professional in 1971, Nelson, at first, shied away from competitive golf, instead taking a job at the Pine Tree Country Club in Kennesaw as an assistant to the famed club professional Bert Seagraves. Content in his role at Pine Tree, Nelson aspired only to move up to a head position someday, but he was encouraged by some members at the club to give the mini-tours a try. With their financial backing, the Nelsons quit their jobs and moved to Florida. In his first professional tournament Nelson shot even par and made $63. Over the next two years (1972-73) he won two tournaments. In 1974 he played his way through the PGA Qualifying School and made the 1974 PGA Tour.
In twenty-three years on the regular tour Nelson won ten events, beginning with the 1979 Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic. He won three majors, specifically the 1981 and 1987 PGA Championships and the 1983 U.S. Open; during the latter he shot a final round sixty-seven to defeat Tom Watson, one of the leading players in the world, by one stroke. In the 1987 PGA he defeated Lanny Wadkins, another leading player, after regulation play in play-off.
Nelson won the 1980 and 1988 Atlanta Classics on his home course. His presence at the tournament in Atlanta helped launch what had been a secondary tournament into a major tour stop. He was a member of three Ryder Cup teams, compiling an outstanding 9-3-1 record. He also served as player and director of the PGA policy board for two separately elected terms.
When he turned fifty in 1997, Nelson joined the Champions Tour. Between 1997 and 2004 he won nineteen times, including six times in 2000, when he was selected Senior Player of the Year and won $2.7 million—the second-highest season total on the Champions Tour.
Nelson is still active on the Champions Tour and lives in Marietta.