Sure, Acworth is a teeny-tiny dot on the map, 45 minutes west of here on old Highway 41. "But it's blacktop all the way," Larry Nelson said, smiling a touch, and old 41 soon may be the yellow brick road to the PGA champion's home. Another 66 today gave Acworth's unpretentious pro a four-shot lead over Fuzzy Zoeller with 18 holes to go.

What Nelson did today was thrilling, for he not only made six birdies in a nine-hole stretch, he also knocked down the flags coming home. This was a target gallery today, with 16 of the 78 players breaking par, but no one was wired more keenly than Nelson, who made putts as long as 30 feet and came to feel infallible.

From the 18th fairway, looking across a pond on a hole that is 463 years of pure fright, Nelson picked out a target to line up his three-iron shot. "I was aiming at a guy in red shirt in the ABC tower," Nelson said, "and it would have come down right on his head."

At eight under par on rounds of 70-66-66 -- 202, Nelson tied the PGA championship's 54-hole record and moved within a 68 of a tournament record and a golf magazine's $50,000 bonus that would accompany the winner's $72,000 check.

Nelson, 33, who didn't play golf until he was 22 and now has won four tournaments and $900,000 in eight seasons, says all this stuff excites him. But the assembled press detected none of the usual symptoms, such as a Niclaus dissertation or a Trevino vaudeville act.

"When I get excited," said Nelson, explaining, "I just get tired."

His plans for tonight were to drive down 41, go upstairs to his son's bedroom and kick a soccer ball around with Drew, 4 1/2.


Zoeller wore out his one-iron off the tee, keeping the ball in the short grass of an Atlanta Athletic Club course made vulnerable by soggy-soft greens, and shot a second straight 68 to move four under par and within four shots of Nelson. Zoeller is one shot ahead of Andy North (70 today) and Tom Kite (69), who said, "Five or six under par will win."

Then, six shots behind Nelson, comes Bob Murphy, whose watery double bogey at the 15th doomed him to a 73 after two days in the lead. Also six back: Greg Norman (68), Vance Heafner (70) and Bob Eastwood (72), who wasted a three-iron hole-in-one on the 210-yard forth when his nervous tic of a swing produced five late bogeys.

The only guy farther back who is brave enough to talk about winning is Nicklaus. With a 71 today, he is eight shots behind.

"It all depends on Larry," Nicklas said. "I'd have to shoot 65 to have a chance. But I didn't think that's out of line on this golf course. As straight as Larry hits the ball, I don't see him playing a bad round tomorrow."

Nicklaus smiled and added, "But . . ."

Jack knows that even fellows in Acworth read the paper. Plant the idea, maybe a triple bogey will grow.

It wouldn't be Nelson's first this year. Excepting two weeks, this has been a miserable season for the guy Ben Hogan's size (5-9, 155) with Gene Littler's swing.

Second on the money list in 1979, when he won two tournaments, and 11th last year, with another victory, Nelson now is 17th with $121,222. He has finished in the top 10 only twice. Strangely, in a four-week period when he missed three cuts, he won the Greensboro Open the other week.

"I've been making a triple bogey every other tournament," Nelson said, "and I hadn't made a triple bogey in seven years before that. Just playing bad, thinking dumb."

Nelson is not a bridge-jumper. He is a steady citizen with the kind of receding hairline and unremarkable friendly face that can get you elected secretary of the Acworth Rotarians. He works hard. He says God already has decided the winner of the PGA and he isn't worried about the outcome.

But he had a disturbing thought as he stood on the 11th tee at the Western Open in mid-July. Ten times he had finished between 20th and 63rd. His work was producing small reward. So he thought, "I want to quit."

He took three weeks off, just hanging around home, fishing some, kicking the soccer ball with his little boy. "I had lost the desire to complete," he said. "I was dreading it."

Playing tournament golf 22 of 26 weeks will do that to you, but coming home to Acworth and Atlanta for the PGA has brightened the days for Nelson.

"I wanted to shoot . . ." he began, and then he smiled, considering what this would sound like. "Well, I knew the course record was 65, so I was trying to shoot at the hole."

Because the Tifton 419 Bermuda rough here is unyielding, this tournament places a disproportionate value on accurate driving. The value is distorted even more by flat greens as big as landing strips and as soft as sponges. They hold any shot. They make small demands on a putter.

What you do, then, is crank up and fire it down the fairway and at the stick. "This is Larry's kind of course," said Kite, another short-but-straight hitter who anticipated nice things here.

"I drive it short and shorter," said Nelson, who ranks 98th in driving yardage and admitted using his driver 14 times to Zoeller's five today.

Not that it bothers him. "I'm not very smart, but if I hit 13 fairways and 17 greens tomorrow, the way I did today, I might win this tournament."

Nelson birdied the fifth hole today with a 25-foot putt.

Then he birdied the seventh with a 12-footer. A seven-iron in.

And the ninth from six feet. A four-iron.

The 11th from 25 feet, after a four-wood approach that hit two feet in front of the cup.

The 12th from eight feet. A wedge.

The 13th from six feet. An eight-iron.

And coming home from there, across the demanding last four holes that only Nelson and Haefner of 150 players have played under par all week, the little man was dead-solid perfect. At the 15th, his three-iron left a 20-footer; at the 16th, he put a five-iron within 10 feet; at the 17th, a two-iron to 10 feet, and at the 18th, with that ABC man in a red shirt as his beacon, Nelson put that three-iron 15 feet from the hole.

"The four tournaments that I've won," Nelson said, answering someone who asked what kind of front-runner he is, "I was leading them all after three rounds."