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Larry Nelson

Sweating as an Oldie


When Larry Nelson was gearing up for the Senior PGA Tour in his late 40s, he noticed a new breed of golfer coming along, one who spent as much time in the weight room as on the practice tee.

While the three-time major champion always had been one of the slimmer players on tour, he knew he had to change his routine to keep up.

"Larry's age group never really conditioned their bodies," professional trainer Kelly Blackburn said. "Their conditioning was the 19th hole in the clubhouse.

"Now here comes Tiger [Woods] and other young players in great shape. If you're 47 years old and teeing it up with kids your son's age, that's intimidating. He wanted to feel good about himself, to add on to the longevity of his career and to prepare for the next stage, which was the senior tour."

That's where Blackburn came in. The Atlanta-based trainer had worked with several professional athletes but never a golfer. She also was working with Nelson's wife, Gayle, and out of that relationship a successful partnership was born.

Six years later, Nelson put together one of the best seasons in senior tour history. He won six events in 2000, finished second seven other times and captured the money title and player of the year award. He gave much of the credit to his training with Blackburn and a midseason change in diet.

"I used to think increasing strength and flexibility didn't go hand-in-hand," Nelson said Thursday from Hawaii, where he will begin the 2001 season today in the MasterCard Championship. "I thought you would get tight, and that's not good for golf. Kelly convinced me to the contrary."

Blackburn had to do some adjusting, too, to develop a workout regimen specific to a golfer, and she has turned it into a major industry. Her Golf Fitness training sessions are taught internationally, and she spends 26 weeks a year on the PGA TOUR and Champion TOUR, working with such clients as Franklin Langham, Hubert Green, Allen Doyle, Tommy Aaron and many others.

But her star pupil remains Nelson, with whom she has collaborated on Golf Over 40 for Dummies, due out in March.

"You have to train differently for golf, especially cardiovascular training," Blackburn said. "You want peaks and valleys because most courses have elevation changes. The worst thing that can happen is you have an uphill lie, and you're still trying to recover because you can't breathe from walking up the hill."

Nelson's biggest problems when he started working with Blackburn were a lack of upper-body strength and flexibility and a posture that contributed to his chronic lower-back pain.

"Larry had tremendous hip power, and that overran his upper-body power," Blackburn said. "He was losing clubhead speed because of that. He was also very inflexible. He couldn't bend over to tie his shoes. Now he can lay his hands flat on the ground."

While Nelson said it wasn't that bad, he conceded that increased flexibility has made the biggest difference in his game.

"I hit it farther now than I did when I was 30," he said. "A little of that is equipment, but a lot of it is being able to make a bigger turn. I actually got to where I was too flexible, and it was affecting my swing. I had to cut down on flexibility exercises."

The other key to Nelson's resurgence last season was a change in eating habits. Tired of losing energy as the day went on, he visited dietician Pamela Smith in Orlando, Fla., in July.

"I was almost malnutritioned," Nelson said. "Even though I was eating pretty well, I was eating at the wrong times. I found that rather alarming.

"She put me on a diet designed specifically for me, and I've never felt better. It's just a matter of spreading it out through the day, so I'm never hungry and never have low blood sugar."

It didn't come without sacrifices. Nelson has a friend who sends him a pound cake every time he wins a tournament, so by the end of the year, he had a freezer full of cakes awaiting a little offseason indulging. He also had to be more disciplined while out on tour.

"The tour is notorious for cookies," Nelson said. "There's not a place you can go out here without chocolate chip, peanut butter or sugar cookies sitting around. So that has been difficult."

But it also has been worth it. After meeting with Smith, Nelson's season really took off. In a six-week stretch in August and September, he played five events, won four of them and finished second in the other.

"That's when the light bulb came on," Blackburn said. "You can't make the whole machine work unless everything is working. When he made the commitment to change the way he fuels his body, along with what we had been working hard on the last six years, his performance was incredible."

The only thing missing from Nelson's resume last season was a senior major to add to his one U.S. Open and two PGA Championship titles. He said that's a goal this year, along with performing well when the PGA returns to Atlanta Athletic Club, where he won it in 1981.

"I won there 20 years ago and would like to go back and play," Nelson said. "I'm going to send in my application and decide whether to play about a month before. If I'm playing well and don't feel like I'm taking up space, I'll be there."

Nelson's victory in his hometown completed one of the unlikeliest rises in golf history. When he returned from military service in Vietnam, he never had picked up a club. But after reading Ben Hogan's Five Lessons, Nelson broke 100 the first time he played.

Less than 15 years later, he was a major champion, but he played most of his career in the shadows of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and others.

"He won a U.S. Open and two PGAs but never got his due," two-time PGA winner Dave Stockton said. "You don't win three majors if you can't play."

"Larry has always been a good player," Nicklaus said. "I don't know what recognition he got, but those of us who play give him a lot of respect. He works very hard at it physically, and he deserves all the recognition he's getting now."