ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Larry Nelson was either in the jungle or a rice paddy during his two years in the Vietnam War, enough time to learn the difference between a land leech and a water leech. Vijay Singh toiled in the rain forest of Borneo, giving golf lessons for $10 and spending every free minute working on his game.
Both took an unimaginable route to one of golf's greatest honors Monday night when they were inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, a celebration of blue-collar success.
"This is one of the biggest achievements in my life," Singh said.
Nelson, a squadron leader for the 198th Infantry, never touched a golf club until he returned from Vietnam. He went on to win three major championships, including the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, and remains the only American to go 5-0 in a Ryder Cup.
Singh relied on a relentless ethic as he worked his way out of Borneo, onto the European Tour and eventually to the United States where he rose to No. 1 in the world ranking by winning nine times in 2004, the highlight of an eventful career that brought him three majors and 29 victories on the PGA Tour.
They were inducted along with former Masters Tournament and PGA champion Henry Picard; Marilynn Smith, one of the 13 founders of the LPGA Tour who won 21 times and two majors; and Mark McCormack, who founded IMG and reshaped sports management with clients ranging from Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods.
Their induction brings membership in the Hall of Fame to 114.
Singh won 17 of his 29 tour titles after turning 40, tying the PGA Tour record set by Sam Snead. He won the PGA Championship at Sahalee in 1998 and at Whistling Straits in 2004, with a coveted Masters title in 2000. And there was no secret to success. Singh is legendary for spending hours upon hours on the practice range, leaving 5-foot long trenches from digging the ball out of the dirt.
The one cloud on his credentials was an accusation that he doctored his scorecard in the '83 Indonesian, which led to Singh being expelled from the Asian Tour. But he never quit, laboring in Borneo and saving enough money to get to Europe, and eventually America.
"I owe everything to golf," Singh said.
Nelson's story is simply remarkable, and unlikely to ever be matched in an era when players are given top instruction at an early age. He was a baseball player who thought golf was a sissy sport when he was drafted for the Vietnam War at age 19. While in the Army, Nelson met a soldier who played golf in Florida, and he promised himself he would try it one day.
"I was sitting in a foxhole, looking out on a Vietnam night," Nelson recalled about the end of his tour. "What was I going to do when I got home? I thought, 'This is my opportunity. Maybe I'll start golf.'"
Nelson picked up the game at Pine Tree Country Club in Kennesaw, Ga., where he was going to junior college. The pro gave him Ben Hogan's book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, and Nelson studied each step. Before long, he was an assistant pro who did well enough that members encouraged him to try the mini-tours.
Nelson finished his career with 10 wins, three of them majors.