Step One of Lonnie Nielsen’s planned comeback to the Champions Tour has gone according to plan.
The part-time Orchard Park resident had his left knee replaced in September and is anxious to begin Step Two.
“I had a great result with that and I’m back to playing golf,” he said last week by phone from his winter home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “I’m getting stronger every day. It’s getting there. My golf game seems slow to come around, but physically I’m doing well, so I’m hopeful the game will fall into place.”
Nielsen is planning to return to Western New York in the middle of May. He’s taking a family vacation to Italy at the end of that month, but when he returns he plans to ramp up the intensity of his workouts.
“I’m going to start to get serious about getting in shape and try to do some Monday qualifyings,” he said. “I’m hoping to get back to tournament playing by this summer – July or August.”
Before Nielsen underwent surgery last summer he had a week to remember. He returned to his home state of Iowa and played Belle Plaine Country Club, a nine-hole course measuring just over 3,000 yards he had played “a million times” growing up.
Nielsen played it twice, shooting 30-29 for a 59 at the age of 60. He did some research and found that Bob Hamilton, the 1944 PGA Championship winner, is the only known player to shoot 59 at the age of 59.
The next day, Nielsen flew home and played Crag Burn, making a hole-in-one on the par-3, 182-yard 12th hole with a 6-iron.
“Not a bad couple days,” he joked. “It was pretty exciting, especially to do it at the age of 60.”
Nielsen is currently on medical disability from the Champions Tour, through February 2016. He does not have any status, so he must rely on Monday qualifying or sponsors exemptions to get into tournament fields.
“It’s pretty tough to get fully exempt, although a few guys have done it,” he said. “If you happen to catch lightning in a bottle and win a tournament, then you’re off and running again. The plan is to work on my game and try to fight my way into a few tournaments and see how I do.”
Nielsen will practice at Crag Burn in East Aurora, where he worked as the head professional for 20 years, from 1984 to 2003. Nielsen made it through qualifying school for the Champions Tour on his first try in 2003, then had a tremendously successful run that included two victories and more than $4.3 million in earnings before needing his right knee replaced in July 2010.
Since then, he’s played only 24 events, and none last year. His left-knee replacement was the 12th surgery he’s undergone.
If his recovery goes well, he plans to go through qualifying school again in the fall in an attempt to once again be fully exempt.
Before that, he’ll enter some local tournaments put on by the Western New York section of the PGA and in his home state.
“I’ll try to find some bigger events like that to try and get ready for tour school,” he said. “I’m very happy with the surgery. It’s not fully healed yet, and they say it takes at least a year before you know what you’re going to end up with, but I certainly feel like I had a good result.
“It didn’t take quite as long to get back as the right knee. I think it was three or three-and-a-half months before I played golf after the last one. This one was a little different procedure where they don’t cut any muscle and so you recover from it much quicker. I was hitting balls at five weeks and I played 18 holes at seven weeks so I had a much quicker recovery.”
The brutal winter has delayed the start of the season throughout the region, but it was particularly rough on Whirlpool Golf Course, the Stanley Thompson-designed gem in Niagara Falls, Ont.
The course will not open until May 30. The combination of grasses on the course (blue/poa) did not handle the thick ice well. As a result, the course is implanting a recovery strategy so as to not open with an inferior product.
Some updates on the local golf calendar:
• The Wegmans LPGA Championship is shifting both dates and courses, moving from Locust Hill Country Club in June to Monroe Golf Club in Pittsford, Aug. 14-17.
The tournament had been held at Locust Hill for the last 37 years, including the last four as a major on the LPGA Tour.
• The Buffalo District Golf Association has added two new events to its schedule, a “Swing into Spring” scratch event at Niagara Frontier Country Club on April 27, and a women’s mid-amateur championship, which will be held Aug. 25 at Gowanda Country Club.
• Legends on the Niagara’s Battlefield Course will host the Canadian boys Amateur Championship July 29-Aug. 1. The course will also host an event on the Canadian Women’s Tour June 24-25, with a purse of $60,000.
• Hunter’s Pointe in Welland, Ont., will host the 79th Ontario Senior Men’s Amateur Aug. 12-14. It’s a province-wide event for ages 55 and over.
The two marquee local tournaments now have a presence on social media.
The International Junior Masters – which will conduct its 62nd annual tournament June 23-27 at East Aurora Country Club – is on Twitter,
Defending champion Trevor Ranton is committed to this year’s field. Additionally, the tournament has partnered with the First Tee of Western New York and Northeast region, and is holding spots in the field for First Tee members, along with planning a clinic on the Sunday prior to the tournament.
The Porter Cup, which will be contested for the 56th time July 22-26 at Niagara Falls Country Club, is also on Twitter, @PorterCup.
The second annual Women’s Porter Cup will be held June 11-13.
Casie Cathrea won the inaugural event in 2013 just five days before her high school graduation. Cathrea, though, will not be back to defend her title after turning pro earlier this month.
Nevertheless, director Brian Oakley said interest in the tournament “has exploded,” and a waiting list has been started. The inaugural event featured 39 players, while the field this year for the 54-hole, stroke-play tournament is expected to be capped at 60.
Season passes for the two courses run by Erie County, Elma Meadows and Grover Cleveland, are now available for purchase or renewal. There are regular passes available, as well as for seniors (62 and up) and youth (16 or younger) players. Passes allowing the holder to access tee time reservations are also available.
Golfers who did not have a pass last year must apply in person at either Grover Cleveland (3781 Main St., Buffalo) or Elma Meadows (1711 Girdle Road, Elma) in order to have a picture taken for the pass. More information is available by going to www2.erie.gov/parks and clicking on the golf link.
Seneca Hickory Stick in Lewiston has received two national customer service awards at the recent KemperSports national leadership conference.
The course was voted “Top Five Overall Customer Satisfaction” by the National Golf Foundation, an honor based on an annual customer satisfaction survey administered to everyone who has played the course and opted in to its email list.
The second honor, based on KemperSports’ proprietary TrueReview surveys, was awarded based on the course receiving the second-highest customer service ranking in the company’s portfolio of managed properties. The TrueReview survey scores are derived from reviews given by golfers following each round each time they play the course.