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Pro golfer Lonnie Nielsen dies after battle with dementia

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Professional golfer Lonnie Nielsen, a longtime South Florida resident, died last week after a battle with dementia. He was 67.

Nielsen learned golf on sand green courses in Iowa and was an All-American golfer at the University of Iowa. Despite his success, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to play golf for a living or use his business degree.

“I’d like to turn pro,” Nielsen said at the time, “but I don’t want to do it if I don’t think I can do it well.”

Nielson turned professional and played the PGA Tour full time from 1978-84. His big moment was tying for fifth at the nearby 1979 Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open.

But there weren’t enough of those big moments, so Nielsen became a PGA Professional and spent 20 years as the director of golf at Crag Burn Golf Club in East Aurora, New York. He qualified for the 1986 PGA at Inverness and finished tied for 11th, which still ranks as the highest finish by a club professional in the PGA.

He kept competing and won more than 100 Western New York Section titles and was named the PGA Professional Player of the Year three times. He won so often, the WNYPGA eventually named its Player of the Year Award in his honor.

Upon nearing 50, Nielsen had another difficult decision: Remain at his secure club job or take a shot at the PGA Tour Champions, knowing he would have to earn his way onto the 50-and-older circuit.

“When Lonnie first told the club he wanted to play on the Champions Tour, they were like ‘Go ahead. You’ll always have a job here,’ ” said Steve Barber, a PGA Professional and one of Nielsen’s close friends.

“But once he left, it was more like ‘good luck.’ The pressure for him to play well and support his family was gigantic, but he did it.”

Nielsen not only earned a spot on the PGA Tour Champions, but he won a pair of titles: the 2007 Commerce Bank Championship and the 2008 Dick’s Sporting Good Open. Nielsen played in 191 PGA Tour Champions events, compiling 33 top-10s while earning more than $5.2 million.

“The PGA of America is deeply saddened by the passing of three-time PGA Professional Player of the Year Lonnie Nielsen, who left an indelible mark upon his peers while competing at the highest level and with countless amateurs he inspired in the Western New York PGA Section,” said PGA President Jim Richerson. “But perhaps Lonnie’s greatest gift was his humble approach to success and being a premier ambassador for the game of golf.”

Nielsen had a sneaky sense of humor. Once, when he was playing at Pebble Beach, some fans asked him if he was Jack Nicklaus because he resembled the Golden Bear. Nielsen quickly said he was “Jack’s son,” and the fans followed him along, asking him questions about his famous “dad.”

Nielsen, who was 14 years younger, was close to Nicklaus in the locker room, which was almost always done alphabetically.

“Lonnie was a very humble guy,” said PGA of America historian Bob Denney, who also attended the University of Iowa. “I remember watching him live at one event where you could see him mouthing the words ‘Got to close.’ Lonnie had trouble closing out tournaments. But what a great guy.”

Nielsen moved to Palm Beach Gardens during his PGA Tour Champions career, living at PGA National. He moved to Port St. Lucie about a decade ago and played in the PGA Winter Championships as recently as two years ago and played Treasure Coast golf courses with a group called the “PGA Dogs.” He died in New York.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Jo, daughters Sarah and Mollie and son Andy, as well as four grandchildren and three sisters.

original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/01/29/lonnie-nielsen-dies-dementia-pga-tour-champions/

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