The following article originally appeared in the Jan./Feb., 1982 issue of The Christian Athlete, then the flagship publication of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
To pro golfer Larry Nelson this familiar verse rings as true as the sound of a 300-yard tee shot springing off his driver. They’re words he’s lived by since becoming a Christian in 1975.
Just what does “seeking the kingdom of God” look like for one of the golf’s hottest and most highly-regarded participants?
“We each need to consider the meaning of those words in our own life and then live them out. Those times I’ve been able to really put the Lord first, it’s worked.”
But what’s the 34-year old’s approach when Matthew 6:33 doesn’t seem to work?
“When I get low spiritually, I do what any smart athlete does—I go back to the basics. The basics of my faith are that God loves me, has a plan for my life, cares for me personally and understands my troubles, wants and needs.
“Professional athletes are in a field that makes it extremely difficult to keep priorities straight. Everything is performance oriented. That’s why I need my faith. Golf can provide many things materially but only the Lord can give me joy, peace and life eternal regardless of my performance on the course.”
Larry’s major priorities include:
His faith. “My first priority is God… to seek Him and bring glory to Him. I need to return thanks for His blessings. Regular Bible study, prayer and fellowship with other Christians have been the key to my spiritual growth. The closer my relationship with God, the smoother and more consistent my life becomes.”
His family and friends. “One thing a pro golfer doesn’t have much of is time. I have a wonderful wife Gayle and two boys I love very much. It’s sometimes difficult to pass up a lucrative tournament or appearance to be with them, but ultimately there’s no comparison as to which is more important.
“At the beginning of each year I sit down and determine my tournament participation and other commitments. Then I consider other invitations I’ve received to earn extra income through appearances, pro-am tournaments, etc. When possibly I schedule blocks of time at home with my family. It’s important I make them a priority in my scheduling.”
His job. “Defining the job of a pro golfer is hard. It’s like someone who owns a business… so much of the person is wrapped up in their job that it’s difficult to separate one from the other. For instance, my appearances and speaking engagements don’t directly involve golf but they’re all part of being a pro golfer. Since they can eat up a tremendous amount of time you have to be selective.”
Larry’s taken a roundabout route to his golfing career. Incredibly, the Alabama native had hardly touched a golf club before his twenty-first birthday by which time he’d married his childhood sweetheart, served a tour in Vietnam and established himself as an illustrator with Lockheed Aircraft of Atlanta.
In late 1968 Larry picked up a club for the first time since high school P.E. class. His progress was meteoric. The following spring he broke 40 for nine holes. That fall he carded his first sub-par total for 18 holes and decided it was time to give golf more attention. He resigned his job at Lockheed and divided his time between studies at nearby Kennesaw Junior College and his new position as assistant teaching pro at a local country club.
After a couple years of steady improvement and innumerable amateur tournaments, Larry turned pro in 1973. His early efforts were unspectacular but he persisted and finally collected his first check in his twelfth tournament.
The ensuing years brought higher finishes and increased earnings, though Larry didn’t win a tournament until the 1979 Inverrary Classic. He also topped the field in that year’s Western Open en route to second place in annual winnings. In 1980 he won the Atlanta Classic and finished in the money in 22 of 30 starts. Last year he added victories in the Greensboro Open and the prestigious PGA Tournament.
But it wasn’t only Larry’s golf game that improved. In 1975, within a two week period, both he and Gayle became Christians. Larry became an active member of the Tour Bible Study and began sharing his faith with church and civic groups. He’s participated in numerous FCA pro-am tournaments and served as a clinician for several FCA Junior Gold Conferences. His FCA involvement was recognized last fall when he was named the organizations “Pro Athlete of the Year.”
Though a quiet man, Nelson gracefully accepts his growing notoriety. “Even though public speaking still scares me to death, I think it’s important to share my faith whenever possible. I talk about the basics of Christianity because there are people out there who, like me, have grown up in a church atmosphere but never really heard the gospel presented clearly.”
Larry allows that the toughest conflicts between his faith and career have been choices involving scheduling.
“Last year, in order to fulfill a speaking commitment to a Christian group, I had to pass up a $5,000 one-day pro-am tournament appearance. I mention that not to blow my horn but to stress that it’s vital we stick with our priorities.”
Whether speaking, shooting for a birdie putt or relaxing at home, Larry continues to quietly seek the kingdom of God.
“The Lord’s blessed Gayle and me greatly these past few years, especially in our spiritual growth. He’s shown us that by daily seeking His kingdom—placing things in their right priority—we’re allowing Him to use us to accomplish His work in the world. And that’s exciting.”