US Open countdown: Larry Nelson’s two-round turnaround nets his only Open title

83rd U.S. Open | June 16-20, 1983

Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.


Larry Nelson, United States 75 - 73 - 65 - 67 280
Tom Watson, United States 72 - 70 - 70 - 69 281
Gil Morgan, United States 73 - 72 - 70 - 68 282
Seve Ballesteros, Spain 69 - 74 - 69 - 74 286
Calvin Peete, United States 75 - 68 - 70 - 73 286

What turned out to be anyone’s traveling nightmare — lost luggage — very well could have been the key to Larry Nelson’s improbable come-from-behind triumph for his only U.S. Open title.

Nelson, an Alabama native who learned how to play golf reading “The Five Fundamentals” by Ben Hogan while serving in the U.S. Army as a 20-year-old, had not done much on the PGA Tour since his win at the 1981 PGA Championship.

Coming into Oakmont, Nelson had been in a deep putting slump. He had made the cut at seven of 17 PGA Tour tournaments.

Moreover, he had no golf clubs when he arrived Tuesday. The airline on which he had flown lost his luggage.

So, Nelson and his caddie went directly to the putting green at Oakmont late Tuesday for practice. That is where the 10-time PGA Tour winner began fiddling with a putting technique he saw Jack Nicklaus use — lifting the putter head at address instead of grounding it on the green.

For the first two rounds, Nelson looked more poised to bow out of the championship than contending for it. In fact, four holes into his third round, he was 7-over for the tournament.

Then it all clicked.

He rallied to shoot 6-under 65 in the third round to move one stroke out of the lead, shared by defending champion Tom Watson and Spain’s Seve Ballesteros.

Then on a thunderstorm-soaked, eventually rain-delayed Sunday, Nelson continued to make putts before tying Watson on the back nine before play was suspended.

When play resumed, the soft-spoken former baseball player faced a sidewinding 62-foot putt for birdie.

He hit it perfect, watching the putt break 4 feet to the right before falling into the cup for the outright lead.

Watson had his chances down the stretch but made bogey on the short, par-4 17th hole after flying a 9-iron approach into a back greenside bunker. Nelson three-putted from 40 feet at the finishing hole for a bogey, but Watson played that hole poorly, too.

“Smartest two rounds of golf I’ve ever played,” Nelson told reporters afterward.

Nelson’s 132 total over the final 36 holes broke Gene Sarazen’s 51-year-old record of 133.

Nelson played on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams, and won his first nine matches. His 9-3-1 career record is one of the best marks all time.

Also, nearly 40,000 fans showed up in third round of this national open, which was a single-day U.S. Open record at that time.

This was also the final U.S. Open in which Arnold Palmer made the cut. He tied for 60th.