Lonnie Nielsen has finally reached the end of his long road back to the Champions Tour, and he’s done it in major fashion.
Nielsen will compete this week in the 35th U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla. In doing so, he’ll also make history as the first player on any professional tour to play after having double knee replacement surgery.
The part-time Orchard Park resident had his right knee replaced in July 2010, then had his left knee replaced last September. Since then, he’s participated in some local tournaments put on by the Western New York section of the PGA, but this week will mark the first time he’s played in a Champions Tour event in nearly two years.
“I really hadn’t been playing very good golf since I had my left knee replaced and I don’t really know why, other than I guess it was just a much bigger adjustment than I thought it was going to be. I felt good, but I just wasn’t able to shoot a decent score,” Nielsen said. “It would get very frustrating. Just in the last three weeks or so, it finally started to click. I think I got used to that knee a little bit more now.”
He got into the U.S. Open field by shooting a 3-under 69 last month at a sectional qualifying tournament held at Sewickley Heights Golf Club in Sewickley, Pa.
“I thought I’d have a chance if I could just play like I had been playing and sure enough I managed to do that,” said the 61-year-old who splits his time between Western New York and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “I hit the ball beautifully that day, especially with my driver.”
Nielsen birdied three of his first eight holes to start the qualifier, and had a 4-foot birdie putt on No. 9 that he somehow three-putted for his lone bogey. He made one more birdie on the back nine and then watched as his score stood up to earn one of two spots from the field of 57.
“It was a really nice feeling getting the job done,” he said.
Nielsen has been working with Jeff Woodrich, a physical therapist and owner of Buffalo Rehab Group, and said he’s noticed an improvement in his balance that has greatly helped his game.
“He gave me some exercises and it’s made quite a difference,” Nielsen said. “Within a week I could see it, so I’ve got to thank Jeff for that.”
Nielsen tees off at 9:39 a.m. Thursday in the first round as part of the 156-player field. The week promises to be as much of a physical challenge as it is a mental test. Temperatures are expected to be between 95 and 100 degrees all week.
“It’s going to be grueling physically. It’s a long walk – it’s got to be a good six miles – so it’s going to be quite a test,” he said. I hope I’m up for that. I think that I am. Mentally, I guess we’ll just have to see. I don’t have any big expectations. I’m not going to try and put any pressure on myself to play out of my mind one week. I’m just going to try and play golf like I know I can play and see how it turns out.”
Nielsen does not currently have any status on the Champions Tour, so he must rely on Monday qualifiers or sponsor’s exemptions to get into fields. He’s written for and hopeful of receiving two of the latter, for the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott next month and the Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach in September. He also may get a spot in the Quebec Open in September, as that tournament comes at the end of a four-week stretch on the Champions Tour and is lagging behind on committed players.
If Nielsen continues to play well, he plans to attend Champions Tour qualifying school in the fall in an effort to regain full playing status.
First, though, comes a spot in a major championship.
“It’s a homecoming of sorts for me, I guess, to come out and get to see the guys again,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a fun week and we’ll see how it all plays out.”
• The Western New York section of the PGA has held two local qualifiers for the 2015 Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals. A collaborative golf development initiative between the PGA of America, United States Golf Association and the Masters, the event is open to junior golfers between ages 7 and 15. There are four age groups for boys and girls: 7-9, 10-11, 12-13 and 14-15.
The first local qualifier was held at Eagle Vale Golf Course in Fairport on July 1. Harvest Hill in Orchard Park hosted the second local qualifier Tuesday, and the third and final event is today at J.C. Martin Golf Course in Erie, Pa.
Scoring is based on a 25-point-per-shot basis, with each participant taking three shots per skill, for a possibility of 75 points.
The top three in each age group advance to the subregional qualifying at Ravenwood Golf Club in Victor on Aug. 7. From there, the top two finishers in each age group advance to regional qualifying, which will be held at Bethpage Green in Farmingdale on Aug. 27. The winner of each age group at the regional event – of which there are 40 across the country – will compete in the 2015 National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club on April 5, the Sunday before the start of Masters week.
Justin DiCienzo of Niagara Falls, Ont., took first place in the boys 14-15 age group last week in the local qualifier at Timber Banks Golf Club outside Syracuse. He advances to the regional qualifier in Schenectady on Aug. 16.
Nationally, more than 50,000 junior golfers are expected to compete this year in one of 256 local qualifying tournaments held across all 50 states. Results from the first two events held by the Western New York PGA can be found on Page D5.
• Stephanie Meadow has accepted the sponsor’s exemption and will play in the 2014 Wegmans LPGA Championship at Monroe Golf Club next month. Meadow, a 22-year-old from Northern Ireland, made her LPGA debut last month at the Women’s U.S. Open and finished in third place.
She finished her collegiate career at Alabama earlier this year as the school’s first four-time All-American, winning nine career tournaments.
• Congratulations go out to Jon Fuller, the assistant athletic director for communications at the University of Buffalo. Fuller made his first-ever hole-in-one last month on the 168-yard third hole at Springville Country Club with a 7-iron.
Even better than that? He won a car.
Playing in the Springville Boys and Girls Club outing June 23, Fuller’s tee shot went up the left side of the green. It found a big mound and started tracking – and tracking – to the pin on the right until it dropped.
“I started running down the fairway,” Fuller said. “I was going pretty crazy. I don’t even remember half of it, I was just so excited.
“It’s my first one, and I’ve played a lot of golf. I used to think about it every time I played. I’d get done and think, ‘Well that’s another round without a hole-in-one.’ ”
He doesn’t have to worry about that any more. As for his new ride, once all the necessary paperwork is signed off on, Fuller will get what amounts to a $25,000 gift certificate to pick out a vehicle of his choice from the Emerling dealership in Springville.