Nelson clawed his way onto the Tour in 1974, and finally broke through in '79, winning twice and finishing a career-best second on the money list. Deadly straight off the tee and murder with his long irons, Nelson excelled on tough courses, and he was a fearless enough competitor to go 8-0 in his first two Ryder Cups. In '81 Nelson began to be a force in the majors. He blew away the field at that year's PGA at the Atlanta Athletic Club, his lead never dipping below three strokes during the final round. At the '83 U.S. Open at Oakmont, reputedly the toughest track in championship golf, he sank a 60-foot birdie putt on the 70th hole to beat Tom Watson, at the time the game's best player. At the '87 PGA he stared down the famously fearsome Lanny Wadkins, winning on the first hole of sudden death.
Despite these achievements, Nelson is rarely mentioned when the game's greats are discussed. His dissing became officially sanctioned when the PGA of America passed him over for the Ryder Cup captaincy in 1995 and in '97 Nelson's lack of renown is in part his own doing. He often played only two or three tournaments besides the majors during the summer, preferring to be with Gayle and coach the soccer and baseball teams of their two boys, Drew, now 23, who is cutting his teeth on the minitours, and Josh, 22, who's a senior at Auburn.
Even in his prime Nelson had more on his mind that just playing golf. In the early '90s Larry Nelson Enterprises had six full-time employees. In addition to designing and building 15 courses worldwide (including Springhouse Golf Club in Nashville, site of the BellSouth Senior Classic), Nelson patented and marketed a golf-centric swing-strengthening device called the Protonic.
In recent years Nelson has dismantled the business. "It's just about playing golf now," he says, and that, along with his new diet, helps explain his stellar play this year. Like the black '57 Thunderbird he keeps at home in Marietta, Ga., Nelson isn't getting older; he's getting better. "This has been my most consistent year and maybe the most enjoyable," he says. "When you're on the PGA Tour there's always next year. You can't even fathom not playing golf anymore. Out here, you know it's almost the end of the road, so the happy times are sweeter, and the failures never hurt as bad."
Funny that Nelson would use the word sweet. Back at Applebee's, his low-fun meal has long since been finished, and he has waved off any talk of dessert, despite multiple entreaties by an overly perky waitress. All that's left to digest is the question of what the player of the year title would mean to him. "It would be nice," he says. "I don't know if you can do anything on the Senior tour that adds to your career. It's more a case of self-satisfaction than trying to prove anything to anyone. All it would mean is that for one year I was the best player over the age of 50."
For Nelson, who has sacrificed so much (sugar) to get here, the title would be more than nice. It would be his just desserts.