Lonnie Nielsen’s not ready to pack up his clubs just yet.
The Orchard Park resident went on medical disability from the Champions Tour in February because of a nagging left knee injury. The condition is so bad it will require a knee replacement, which Nielsen will have done in September.
Despite that, and the fact Nielsen will turn 60 on Saturday, he’s not ready to say his competitive playing days are done.
“If I get healthy again, I’d like nothing better than to go back and play. I don’t know that I’d go back on a full-time basis, but you never know. If I go out there and catch lightning in a bottle one week and I get fully exempt, then I’d probably start up again,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen in this game.”
Nielsen spent 20 years, from 1984-2003, as the head professional at Crag Burn Golf Club in East Aurora. With his knee preventing him from playing every day, Nielsen is back at the club this summer, and also playing in local tournaments put on by the Western New York Section of the PGA.
“If I kind of pace myself, and take it easy leading up to the little events that I have been playing in, I feel like I can do that. Right now, to play in a three- or four-day tournament, I really don’t think I’d be able to do it. It would be too much golf,” he said. “The walking, amazingly enough, doesn’t seem to bother me much, it’s just strictly the golf swing.”
Nielsen played in eight Champions Tour events last season before shutting his season down in August because of the pain in his left knee.
“If it wasn’t for golf, I wouldn’t get this knee replaced, but I just can’t swing the way I want to – the way I need to – to be competitive, so it’s a little frustrating from that standpoint,” he said. “I’ve had to try to retool my swing to figure out how I can play with this knee the way it is. I’d like to get it done so I can go back to swinging the way I want to.”
Knee injuries are nothing new to Nielsen. He’s had 11 surgeries so far, including having his right knee replaced in July 2010.
Nielsen played in only six Champions Tour events that season, sidetracking a successful career on the senior circuit.
Nielsen made it through qualifying school on his first attempt in 2003.
“There were about 600 guys trying, and they give five spots at tour school,” said Nielsen, who earned his card with a tie for fourth. “I don’t think I’d ever been as prepared for anything in my life as I was for that week. I was in better shape physically at 50 than I was in my early 40s. I did everything I needed to do to get ready for it, and to get through on the first time was a pretty big deal.”
In his first full season in 2004, Nielsen finished 36th on the money list with more than $500,000 in earnings. Over the next five years, he finished no worse than 27th on the money list, and earned more than $4.3 million. His best season came in 2008, when he earned more than $1.2 million and placed 11th on the money list.
He has two career victories – in the 2007 Commerce Bank Championship and 2009 Dick’s Sporting Goods Open – and 33 top-10 finishes.
Nielsen’s win in 2009 came on the day before his 56th birthday.
“Coming out here, I heard ‘it’s a small window from 50 to 55.’ So here I was going to turn 56 the next day, and I said, ‘I’m not going to let that happen to me,’ ” he said. “Quite honestly after that, my game just fell off. Like somebody flipped a switch.”
Still, he’s determined to give it one more shot.
“I just think you still need to have something to keep you going,” he said. “I’m hopeful that at the end of this surgery that I’m going to feel fit enough and good enough about my game that I’d still want to go out and play some more. I do miss it. That competition is great out there. I certainly miss the money, too. ... I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to come back.”
Nielsen knows the challenge will be great. He said four players on the Champions Tour have had right knee replacements, but none have ever had their left knee replaced and come back to play.
“It’s probably going to take me a year to rehab this knee and get it back where it needs to be. Not many guys make comebacks at age 61, so my guess is I’m probably done,” he said, “but I’d like to play a few tournaments. I’d love to play four, five, six times a year. Go out there and see the guys and still have something to look forward to.”
Nielsen’s medical disability lasts three years. When he is healthy enough to play, he’ll have to rely on sponsors exemptions and his ability to Monday qualify to get into tournaments.
Nielsen will have surgery in Florida, near his winter home in Palm Beach Gardens. He and his wife, Mary Jo, who are both originally from Iowa, moved south in 2005. But they never stopped calling Western New York home.
“I think when we get down to one house, it’s going to be our Buffalo home,” said Nielsen, who spends a little more than half the year in Florida. “We both really love it here. We raised our kids here. This has really become our home now. We feel very much entrenched in this community.”
His affection for Crag Burn is much the same.
“There’s still a vitality about this place that excites me. I just love being around here,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of great friends here, and I really enjoy meeting some of the new guys, especially the younger kids. They take me all the way to those back tees: ‘Let’s go pro, see what you got.’ A 60-year-old guy playing with some 25-year-old kids, but it’s fun.”
• Western New York PGA professionals Dwayne Randall (Peek n’ Peak), Steve Barber (Locust Hill) and Jason Piurkoski (Webster) failed to make the cut this week at the 46th PGA Professional Championship at Sunriver Resort in Sunriver, Oregon.
Randall, Barber and Piurkoski were part of a field of 312 professionals from around the country vying for one of the top 20 spots – and the accompanying berth in the PGA Championship in August at Oak Hill that comes with it.
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