As an A-team infantry squad leader, he was responsible for nine men during their nightly jungle ambushes. Their primary mission was to draw fire—thus his familiarity with the sound of bullets—and then they’d call in the artillery. Because of booby traps and snipers, he tended to avoid trails and rice paddy dikes, which often drew the ire of his squad—the jungle was much slower going and rife with land leeches—but he never lost a man.
They’d set off an hour before sunset and hunker down once darkness set in, digging foxholes and staying two to a hole, one person sleeping while the other kept watch. One night, his squad burrowed down 15 yards off a trail, and an entire company marched right by them. For the better part of an hour, Larry stifled the sound of his own breath, terrified that someone in his squad would startle awake and give away their position.
But for the most part, he was more fearful for what was happening back home. During the three months he was stationed in Vietnam, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and seemingly every time a helicopter arrived at base camp to drop off supplies and rations, it also brought more news of protest and unrest. He wrote letters to his wife, Gayle, whom he’d met when he was 5, on the box tops of those C-rations, keeping her abreast of his day-to-day, not giving too many specifics so as not to worry her. In return, she would send Kool-Aid packages to cut the bitter taste of his quinine water.
When his tour ended, he returned home to Acworth, Georgia. He got a job at the local Lockheed Martin factory, working 10-hour shifts seven days a week, and enrolled in three night classes at a junior college. The schedule left him exhausted. One day after work, he staggered out of the concrete tunnel that led to the factory and, with a few hours to kill before class, decided to pull into the driving range across the street. He’d never played golf—always thought it was a “sissy sport”—but he remembered one night during basic training when a buddy raved about the game while they played poker. “He hadn’t shaved for about two weeks and he hadn’t bathed in longer than that and he had an M16, and I didn’t want to tell him what I thought about golf,” Larry once said.
He preferred baseball, but he’d thrown out his arm and needed another outlet. (He was fortunate not to suffer from as much trauma as many of his fellow veterans, but even still: In the months after returning home, while out with a friend, he once lunged to the ground after hearing a loud boom; another time, his wife playfully startled him at home and he had to refrain from reflexively attacking her.) He grabbed a bucket of balls and an aluminum driver, and at first his only aim was to wallop a few over the fence. But he found it therapeutic, the rhythm of the swing and the pure sensation of solid contact and the isolation of it all. He made a habit of it over time, stopping by after a long day at work. It wasn’t long before he was driving the ball farther than the others on the range, and straighter, too.
It was still another year before he played with any seriousness—or with any club other than a driver. He quit Lockheed to finish school, and to fill his free time every day until his wife got home from work, he purchased a discount membership at nearby Pinetree Country Club. He was nearly 23. When Larry was a kid, he would often spend time by himself, seeking out new fishing holes or lying in a field of sage for hours and gazing at the clouds passing overhead. The solitary nature of golf suited him, and he was rewarded with steady improvement. “I think that is what’s good about the game, whether you’re coming back out of a war zone or an office,” he says. “No matter how many people are out there, it’s still just you, the golf club, and the golf ball, trying to get it where you want it to go.”
The club pro, Bert Seagraves, recommended he pick up a copy of Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Larry studied the book and, with occasional tips from Bert, shot under par within a year. Other members began taking notice. One of them, Chet Austin, never forgot the first time he saw Larry and his wife at the course. “He and Gayle came driving up to the tee,” Austin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006. “And when I saw him hit the ball as far as he could for a man his size, I thought, Woooo-wee. That got my attention.”
Bert brought him on as an assistant in 1970, which meant that, although Larry spent more time at the course, he only had limited windows of practice time. He often played at dawn before the members arrived, and in the afternoons, he would hit balls out of a ditch in the driving range using one arm. After a few years, he was considering taking another job because he couldn’t support a family on his assistant’s salary. Instead, a group of five Pinetree members, including Chet Austin, pooled together enough money ($10,000) to send him to Tampa, Florida, to play the professional mini-tours. Surprised, he went home and told Gayle. She was supportive, but Larry was hesitant. He’d seen professional players come through Pinetree every now and then, and he was enamored with them, but the notion of playing golf for a living still seemed far-fetched. Then he talked to Bert. “You’ve got to do this,” Bert told him, “because if you don’t, you’ll always regret it.”