Commentary

Larry Nelson deserves a chance

Updated: December 16, 2012, 3:13 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ORLANDO -- Once again, Larry Nelson is left to deal with the disappointment. The U.S. Ryder Cup captaincy has gone to someone else, leaving Nelson to field the questions for which he has no answers.

It has always been difficult to reconcile the PGA of America's decision to bypass him, and it remains so today.

[+] EnlargeLarry Nelson
Brian Morgan/Getty ImagesIn terms of qualifications for the job, Larry Nelson seems like a no-brainer: Three major champions (including two PGAs), a stellar Ryder Cup record and a backstory that seems to fit like a glove with the PGA of America's priorities.

Nelson should have gotten his shot 15 years ago; now that the organization that picks the captain has gone "outside the box" in picking Tom Watson, 63, we are again left to wonder how a three-time major champion -- including two PGA Championships -- with a strong Ryder Cup record could be left out.

Several past U.S. Ryder Cup captains here at the Father/Son Challenge where Nelson, 65, is competing with his son, Josh, spoke up on his behalf, many reaching out to the PGA of America in recent weeks and months to push his name.

While they are thrilled for Watson and glad the PGA went in another direction with an older captain, they hurt for Nelson.

"Larry is the most deserving guy," said Raymond Floyd, who captained the 1989 team.

"I was really flattered, honestly flattered by the number of people, the emails, the texts, just every place I went someone would say, 'We really hope you get the Ryder Cup this year,'" Nelson said. "A lot of them say it's been the worst thing in golf, the fact that you haven't been a Ryder Cup captain.

"I've heard that so much, since '95 basically. But this time it did seem like. ... I was thrown into the mix and it seemed like that was being kicked around a little bit. So we went through the whole emotion of yes, this would be great, looks like it might happen, to no, it's not going to happen.

"I'm certainly disappointed. Not devastated, but disappointed I was not named captain."

Nelson would seemingly be the perfect fit for the PGA of America, which has several agendas, including growing the game. What better example to put forth than Nelson, who did not take up the game -- and had never seriously played golf -- until he returned from serving in Vietnam at age 21.

Try to imagine something like that happening today. Aspiring golfers are seriously into junior programs 10 years before he started playing, but Nelson offers hope that it's never too late.

By 1973, less than four years after first playing, Nelson had earned his PGA Tour card. In 1979, at age 31, he captured his first two tournament victories -- the same year he went 5-0 in his first Ryder Cup. Two years later, he won all four of his matches, going an amazing 9-0 in his first two appearances, and also claimed his first major, the PGA Championship.

That 1981 team featured an all-star cast of U.S. players, such as Floyd, Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Watson.

"Dave Marr was our captain at Walton Heath in England and Dave referred to [Nelson] as our 'baby-faced chicken killer,'" Crenshaw said. "They don't want to tussle with him."

Two years later, Nelson won the U.S. Open at Oakmont -- defeating Watson and denying him a second straight Open. He added another PGA Championship in 1987, in a playoff over Lanny Wadkins.

But when it came time for Ryder Cup captaincy ... nothing.

He was supposed to get the job in 1995, but was asked to step aside for Wadkins with the understanding he would get it in 1997. But Nelson learned while overseas that Kite would be the captain. In 2006, there was another wave of sentiment for his captaincy, but the PGA stuck with its system of picking captains who were in their late 40s and still playing on the PGA Tour. Tom Lehman, despite just five PGA Tour wins and one major (compared to Nelson's 10 and three) was named.

On its own, the Vietnam angle -- Nelson served in the U.S. Army for two years and spent three months in Southeast Asia -- would seemingly merit strong consideration. Add in the three majors -- including two PGAs. And the 9-3-1 Ryder Cup record. The World Golf Hall of Fame.

All for a guy who never played golf until he was 21.

"I've always felt that golf is one of the few sports where nobody pulls for the underdog," Nelson said. "Everybody pulls for Tiger [Woods], everybody pulls for Phil [Mickelson]. In golf, nobody pulls for the underdog.

"I didn't grow up in the high echelons of golf; I didn't play amateur golf. I don't know all these guys who are heads of the PGA and the USGA or whatever ... I'm not complaining ... But taking up the game late, going to Vietnam, all that ..."

Nelson just shakes his head.

He at least is happy that the PGA has gone in another direction with an older captain, and acknowledges that Watson is a great choice to go on the road to Scotland. Perhaps now that a new route has been taken, it would allow for some sliver of chance for Nelson in 2016, when the Ryder Cup will be played in Minnesota.

"I don't think this is a bad move at all; this may in fact open the door for Larry later on," Wadkins said. "If Tom goes and does the job we think, maybe they'd lean to some of the older guys. That would be a wonderful thing. I played for Billy Casper and Jack Nicklaus twice and [Lee] Trevino and Dow Finsterwald. These were guys I grew up watching.

"And so when I was playing for them, I had the utmost respect for these guys. It was really an honor to be in their presence for a week and learn from them."

PGA of America president Ted Bishop, who never spoke to Nelson until the news was out about Watson, did at least offer some hope on Thursday when he said the "door is not closed on Larry Nelson."

Upon hearing that, Nelson said, chuckling: "I'd like them to put it in writing in a contract that's irrevocable."

Nelson then joked about moving to Minnesota and applying for the job at Hazeltine, where the 2016 matches will be played. By then, he'll be 69, but so what?

"Now that they've gone outside the box, they can do what they want," said Davis Love III, who captained this year's team at Medinah. "They've penciled in guys in the right places. Tom Watson in Scotland is pretty natural. They have a good plan."

The Twitter account that was set up to get Nelson on board for 2014 has already shifted its attention to 2016. Perhaps then, finally, Nelson will get what he deserves.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE GOLF HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM