Lonnie Nielsen can still see the moment as clear as his tear-dampened eyes would allow. He's walking to the 18th green on the final hole of the Commerce Bank Championship three weeks ago feeling poised, in control. The gallery begins to applaud, politely at first and then with increasing vigor. Fans rise to their feet, a few, then some more, until there is a full-fledged standing "O" for golf's newest champion.
And that's when it hit Nielsen, the former golf director at Crag Burn. That's when he was blind-sided by feelings he thought he had in check.
"I mean, it just absolutely overtook me," he said Tuesday during a return visit to Western New York. "The emotions felt like they started from my toes and came right up and almost knocked me over. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I had a tough time seeing through the tears to putt."
Four years ago, Nielsen decided to take a shot at qualifying for the Champions Tour, pro golf's elite circuit for players 50 and older. He had played some PGA Tour events during his younger days, getting nowhere, giving up the dream to raise a family. He settled in at Crag Burn in 1984 and established a reputation as one of the elite teaching and playing club professionals in the country. He even placed 11th in the 1986 PGA Championship.
People wondered why he wouldn't give the tour another shot, return to PGA Qualifying School, keep chasing the glamour life. Nielsen wanted no part of it, knowing that for most the glamour was an illusion. "The tour beat me up something terrible," he once said.
It was as he approached 50 that Nielsen pondered a return at the Champions level. He began honing his game in preparation for Q-School, earned his card, set out to do battle with the game's legends. And while he survived he wanted more. He yearned to know the euphoria, the sense of accomplishment, that comes with winning an event. Fulfillment required victory's validation.
A few days after his triumph at the Commerce Bank Championship, Nielsen was on the practice green at the U.S. Senior Open, talking with John Jacobs, a multiple winner on the Nationwide and Champions tours. Nielsen's breakthrough was fresh conversation. Jacobs asked him how it felt.
"I said, 'Well, it's unbelievable. It's an indescribable feeling. You know what it's like.' And he said, 'Yeah, you never really quite felt like you belonged and now you do.' And he really kind of hit the nail right on the head there."
Nielsen has been the circuit's hottest golfer of late. He finished 11th at the Senior Open, placed third at last week's Dick's Sporting Goods Open in Endicott. He's vaulted to 16th on the money list with earnings of almost $600,000. For the first time in four Champions seasons he's a shoo-in to finish among the top 30 in earnings and secure full playing privileges for next season.
"It's pretty nice to be in this position for a change," he said. "It'll make these last 10 or 12 tournaments this year so much more enjoyable not fighting it out every week, feeling like you're trying to get in that top 30."
Strange game, golf. In mid-June Nielsen was struggling something fierce with his short game. He was taking his approaches to the fat part of greens instead of shooting at pins because he dreaded the thought of a pitch shot. Then he spent hours greenside with longtime friend and fellow tour member John Harris, rediscovered his confidence.
"I'm certainly more at peace with myself, more relaxed, more forgiving of my bad shots," he said. "Right now the game seems easy and it's seemed that way to me before but it never lasts forever. So I'm just going to enjoy it while it lasts."