The menus have arrived at Applebee's in Blue Ash, Ohio, and with a sigh Larry Nelson scans the daily temptations. His eyes linger lustfully in the red-light district of the appetizers. Mozzarella sticks beckon him to come hither, deep-fried onion rings peddle their tawdry charms. Nelson, with the resolve of a champion, passes, settling for the lower-fat quesadillas as his main course, plus a side salad with ranch dressing. Lowfat ranch, that is. "Changing my diet was one of the best things I've ever done," Nelson says grimly, folding up his menu.
If Nelson sounds less than enthusiastic, well, the proof is in the (low-fat) pudding. Since embracing a cutting-edge diet in mid-August, Nelson has been devouring the competition on the Senior tour, finishing first, first, second and, at last week's Bank One Championship in Dallas, first over his last four tournaments, not to mention firing a 58 during the pro-am at the Kroger Senior Classic, the day after his low-fun dinner at Applebee's. This late-season burst has propelled Nelson, 53, to the top of the Senior tour money list, with $2.27 million.
Should Nelson become the player of the year, it would be sweet vindication for a terrific golfer who has never quite gotten his due. It might also set off a new craze: pro golfers traveling with duffel bags stuffed with dried cherries, natural peanut butter, whole-grain cereal, high-tech trail mix and various other specialty foods that have been fueling Nelson's ascension. The diet was born out of an early-season malaise. Nelson finished second in three tournaments in a row during the spring and then, at last April's Bruno's Memorial Classic, he shot a 41 on the final nine, blowing another chance at victory. "I was tired physically and mentally, and I played like it," he says. Two weeks later he faltered to a 74 on Sunday to kick away the Nationwide Championship, and he knew he had to do something.
But what? The 5'9", 159-pound Nelson has always been in good shape—10 years ago he was one of the few Tour players to embrace serious conditioning, traveling with his own personal trainer. He had a hunch that his final-round fades had something to do with his diet, which was heavy on cookies and ice cream. Nelson mentioned his suspicions to his wife of 33 years, Gayle, and not long afterward she heard a radio interview with an Orlando nutritionist named Pamela Smith, who has worked with Shaquille O'Neal, among other athletes. When Gayle happened upon one of Smith's tomes at a bookstore, she felt the tug of fate. Gayle started making phone calls, and Smith wound up with Larry's bloodwork.
"After talking with Larry, I could see that his diet was holding him back," says Smith. "His blood sugar was very sensitive to extreme highs and lows, and, as a result, so too was his energy. On top of that Larry was suffering bouts of dehydration. When the stress would build on the course, his body was doing chemical gymnastics."
To stabilize Nelson's system Smith has him eating "power snacks" every 2 to 2� hours. They consist of basic foods—nuts, dried fruits, boiled eggs, cereals, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—mixed in specific portions to achieve an ideal blend of simple carbohydrates and low-fat proteins. Nelson prepares the grub himself, ferrying the disparate elements around the nation in a duffel bag, and then stuffing plastic bags of them in his golf bag. Nelson has also been ordered to drink 12 to 16 ounces of water every two hours while on the course. ("I've told the tour it needs to install more port-a-potties," he says.)
Nelson began his fancy new diet the week of the Novell Utah Showdown in mid-August. Up to that point he had been playing with his typical consistent excellence, though he had rarely gotten over the hump on the final day. Among his 14 top seven finishes were only two victories. At the tournament following Utah, the BankBoston Classic, he fired an energetic final-round 66—his low round of the week—to cruise to a four-shot victory. The next week, during the final round of the Foremost Insurance Championship in Ada, Mich., he set the Egypt Valley Country Club course record with a 63 to win yet again, his ninth career victory on the Senior tour. Says Nelson, who finished third and fourth on the money list in 1998 and '99, respectively, "My clarity of mind, my strength and stamina have all improved dramatically. I haven't felt this good in 25 years."
A quarter century ago Nelson had just embarked on the most unlikely golf odyssey this side of Rannulph Junah. Growing up in Acworth, Ga., 20 miles northwest of Atlanta, Nelson had little interest in the game. He was a two-sport star at North Cobb High, a sweet-shooting point guard who once scored 32 points in a half and a junk-ball pitcher who went undefeated as a senior with an ERA south of 1.00. Nelson earned a scholarship to play both sports at nearby Southern Tech College. At the end of his sophomore year in 1966, he sold his little-used golf clubs to help pay for his and Gayle's honeymoon (two nights in Atlanta).
Nine months after the wedding Nelson left for an 89-day tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was an infantry sergeant and team leader, walking point through the rice paddies outside Da Nang. Nelson left Nam intact, but a week after arriving home he blew out his throwing arm in a pickup baseball game, convincing him that it was time to find a real job. He enrolled at Kennesaw State in Acworth, to finish his associate's degree in engineering. His classes over by midmorning, Nelson began to spend his days shamelessly playing golf at Pine Tree Country Club. (Gayle was bringing home the bacon by working as a sales clerk at Allied Chemical.) Nelson spent so much time at the club that he was hired as an assistant pro, and nine months after taking up the game in earnest, this most natural of athletes broke 70. "I always say, I didn't pick golf. It picked me," Nelson says, almost apologetically.
For two years Nelson honed his game, and then he and Gayle lit out for Tampa and the National Tournament Golf Association mini-tour. In his first event Nelson shot 71-72, and he still remembers the amount he won, $67 "It was absolutely the best I could play, and I finished something like a dozen strokes behind," Nelson says. "You know, I've never really been good enough at any level. I wasn't good enough to be a head pro, wasn't good enough for the mini-tours, I wasn't good enough to make the PGA Tour. Every step of the way I've had to raise my level of play to survive."