But there may never be another like him.
Nelson had never touched a golf club in his life when he was drafted at age 19 for the Vietnam War, where he spent two years, enough time to learn the difference between a water leech and a land leech as he bounced from jungles to rice paddies. Only when he returned home from the war did he pick up the game, studying Ben Hogan's famous book on the five basic fundamentals.
Nelson and Vijay Singh, who toiled in the rain forest of Borneo as a club pro and rose to No. 1 in the world, took part in a blue-collar celebration of success Monday night when they were among five players inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
'This is one of the biggest achievements in my life,' Singh said.
They were inducted along with former Masters 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.
Nelson and Singh were elected on the PGA TOUR ballot. Nelson received 65 percent of the vote, the minimum required.
Singh was elected last year with 56 percent of the vote, but deferred his induction because of a commitment to play overseas last year. He still got in because of a clause in the criteria that if no one received 65 percent the vote that year, the player with the most votes would be elected as long he got more than 50 percent.
No one can dispute his record.
Singh, who was born in Fiji and had to run across an airport runway to get to the golf course, 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 rows of 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. He gave lessons in Borneo for $10 and spent every free minute pounding balls, never losing hope of being the best.
'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, but 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.''
He picked up the game at Pine Tree Country Club in Kennesaw, Ga., where Nelson 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.
'I was able to get as good as I did as quick as I did because I didn't have any other option,' Nelson said. 'Either I had to get better at the level I was, or I was gone.'
Nelson finished his career with 10 victories, three of them majors.
Picard, elected through the veteran's category, was as accomplished as a teacher as he was a player. Born in 1906, he won 20 times between 1935 and 1939, including six times in 1939 when he led the PGA TOUR money list. Picard won the 1938 Masters, the 1939 PGA Championship and played in two Ryder Cups.
He encouraged Snead to join the tour, and gave Hogan unconditional support at the start of his career. Picard later became a teacher, and his clients included Hall of Famer Beth Daniel, who presented him at the World Golf Village.
Smith and McCormack were selected through the Lifetime Achievement category.
Along with helping to found the LPGA Tour, Smith has conducted more than 4,000 clinics since 1949 involving more than 250,000 young golfers. She was recognized during the LPGA's 50th anniversary of one of its top 50 players and teachers.
McCormack qualified for the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, but he made his mark with a famous handshake deal with Palmer. That led to the creation of IMG, and it was McCormack who recognized golfers' earning potentials through endorsements and appearance fees.
'I've shaken hands with thousands, maybe millions of people around the world, from the common man to some very famous people,' Palmer said. 'But none meant as much as that one handshake with Mark. He was the right man at the right time in the world of sports management.'