Ghosts of debacles past danced before Larry Nelson's eyes today. He told them to get lost.
Then the quiet little Georgian won his first major golf tournament, the PGA championship, with an "aggressively conservative" 71 for a seven-under-par total of 273 that put him four strokes ahead of Fuzzy Zoeller (71 today) and five up on Dan Pohl (69).
Champagne for the champ? "I'm going home and take a hot bath," Nelson said, which lets you know this is not a wild and crazy guy who might come unglued for an 80 the last day. So as good as some players were -- Jack Nicklaus shot 69, Bruce Lietzke 68 and Greg Norman 68, Isao Aoki 70, Bob Gilder 66, Keith Fergus 68 -- they only tied for fourth place, beaten six shots.
"I'm about as excited as I've ever been in my life," said Nelson, 33, an old relief pitcher who never held a golf club until an infantry buddy in Vietnam talked him into it at age 21. Now he has won $936,668 and five tournaments in seven pro seasons.
Only in Nelson's mind, under that refrigerator company cap, beneath that cue-ball-slick pate, was this a thriller today. Off a pair of 66s in the middle rounds, he took a four-shot lead to the final round. The lead grew to five before it dropped to three, with Zoeller trying to wedge in, but three was as close as anyone came.
The tournament's early leader, Bob Murphy, finished with a 73, beaten by 10 strokes and only six in front of Washington's Lee Elder, who shot 69 today.
Five weeks ago, Nelson had played himself into a psychological rut from which the only escape was a month's vacation at home fishing and playing soccer with his boys, Drew, 41/2, and Josh, 21/2. He hadn't finished in the top 10 for almost three months, and his stylish swing, so reminiscent of the poetry Gene Littler created, had become a weed-chopper's slash.
A self-taught craftsman who figured any baseball player able to hit a curve ball surely could hit a ball just sitting there, Nelson has moments of golfing infallibility. Even as he missed three cuts in a month early this year, he won the Greensboro Open the other week.
"When Larry's on, he's a helluva player," Zoeller said. "I tell you, it's pretty to watch anybody hit the ball the way Larry did today."
It's pretty monotonous, too, with Nelson's tee shots always in the fairway, his approaches always on the green. He was in the woods a while at the 14th, a trip that witnesses saw as the day's only adventure. He escaped to say it wasn't as bad as it looked. And mind readers in the gallery of 20,000 knew the real drama came at the 16th hole.
That's where the ghosts came alive, for there is a large sand trap in front of that elevated green. Nelson lost last fall's World Series of Golf when, on the next to last hole, he buried his approach shot into just such a trap in front of just such an elevated green at Firestone Country Club.
Perhaps more than any of this year's major championships, this PGA demanded a player be his own conscience. There was little of the Masters excitement and none of the Open's demands for exquisite shot-making. You could fall asleep here. Once safely in the fairway -- the only real challenge on the Atlanta Athletic Club's 7,070-yard layout -- Nelson could attack the mammoth, flat greens made softly vulnerable by too much watering and too much rain.
So as he stood in the middle of the 16th fairway, with his $50-a-week Amana cap hiding what Zoeller calls "that cue ball up there," Larry Nelson had to dream up his own difficulties to keep alive his sense of the hunt.
"I thought about the 17th hole of the World Series," Nelson said. "I was so tired that day after 34 holes, I just didn't think well. And 16 here, with the trap, is the same kind of shot. All I wanted to do is think well enough to get the ball in the middle of the green."
A soft six-iron shot from a bare lie on the water line down the middle of the fairway -- where else? -- left Nelson 20 feet above the cup at 16.
"I was tickled to death. I didn't care how far past the hole it went," he said.
From there he two-putted for a par, keeping his lead at three strokes, and he needed to negotiate only two more holes for the $60,000 first prize and the 10-year exemption from weekly qualifying so dear to every touring pro.
Only two holes? Those two holes are killers. The 17th is 213 yards over water, the 18th is a member's par 5 made into a pro's par 4 of 463 yards doglegging over a pond in front of the green. Lietzke made double-bogey at 18 today, as did Vance Heafner, another contender, both splashing in the pond. Murphy got wet at the 17th.
A 25-foot birdie putt at the ninth hole, one of only two birdies Nelson made today, had been the stabilizing shot of the round. And when he pitched through three trees to reach the 14th green for a safe bogey, Nelson breathed more easily. But the one he liked best was the tee shot at the 17th.
"When Fuzzy missed the green, all I wanted to do is get it over the water and on the green anywhere," Nelson said. His two-iron shot sailed 30 feet past the cup.
"At 17," Nelson said to someone asking when he thought he had won, "when I saw that beautiful little ball mark on the green."
His par there, along with Zoeller's bogey, made a four-shot spread.
Nelson calls himself a choker. "I'm a choker, and I hate to go to 18 with a one-shot lead. Everyone chokes. If they say they're not nervous on 18 one shot ahead, they're on something."
The choker hit the world's most gorgeous tee shot at 18, the cursed white pellet falling to earth in the dead middle of the fairway. From there it was a little three-iron over the pond into a bunker, from which he came out to four feet and made the putt that may forever keep the ghosts away.