EAST MEADOW, N.Y. (AP) — Lonnie Nielsen was in unfamiliar territory.
He had been on a golf course almost every day of his life since the sport became his passion as a youngster, when he followed his father around with one club.
This time, he was walking down a fairway with a tournament title close at hand. And even though he had trouble seeing through the tears, he saw his way to his first win.
Nielsen, who didn’t win in five years on the PGA Tour and had made 91 starts on the Champions Tour without a victory, shot a 2-under 69 on Sunday for a two-stroke win over Loren Roberts in the Commerce Bank Championship.
“One-for-92, huh?” he said. “That’s better than 0-for-92.”
It was a lot better.
“Walking up that 18th fairway I couldn’t have gotten a word out,” he said. “The people were giving me a nice ovation. Then I got up near the green and saw a couple of buddies standing there and I was pretty choked up. I had to get the tears out of my eyes and two putt from 10 feet and I did.”
Nielsen, who turned 54 on Friday, won 32 titles on smaller tours, including the New York State Open in 1985 and 1989. He entered the final round at the 7,021-yard Red Course at Eisenhower Park with a three-stroke lead and was never threatened in taking home the $225,000 top prize from a purse of $1.5 million.
He came into the tournament with one top-10 finish this year and was 45th on the money list with $187,921. He has won over $2.2 million since joining the Champions Tour in 2003.
“The respect of your peers is the No. 1 thing and there are so many perks that go with it,” he said when asked what was the best thing about finally winning. “When you work as hard I have, and everybody out here has, to come out on top is pretty special. I worked my whole life for this. I don’t know how it can be more special than that.”
Nielsen’s best previous finish as a senior came in a playoff loss to Eduardo Romero in last year’s Jeld-Wen Tradition, one of the tour’s five majors.
This is the third straight year a player got his first tour win at this tournament. John Harris won last year and Ron Streck won in 2005. Six players have won their first title at this tournament, which started in 1988.
“John Harris is one my best friends out here, and to follow in his footsteps is pretty special,” Nielsen said. “He was waiting for me at 18. I didn’t used to be an emotional guy. I guess I’m getting to be an old softy. To see your peers hang around, though. They know how hard it is.”
Roberts, who had a one-stroke lead after opening the tournament with a 64, shot a 66 Sunday, closing with a short birdie on the 18th to finish at 12-under 201. His second-round 71 proved to be his undoing.
“We didn’t put any heat on Lonnie,” Roberts said. “I was trying to put the heat on him but I couldn’t make any birdies in the middle of the golf course. If I couldn’t win I was sure happy to see Lonnie win.
“He deserved this.”
Roberts made a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 4, a hole he made a double-bogey 6 on Saturday.
“That was a real momentum killer for me yesterday,” Roberts said of the double bogey. “The rest of the round I was fighting to get back to par and didn’t.”
Tom McKnight had a closing 69 and was at 11-under 202, while Bob Gilder, who shot a 68, was another stroke back.
Nielsen shot a 64 on Saturday to take the three-shot lead that tied the tournament record for 36 holes. It was the first time he held the lead alone entering the final round on the Champions Tour.
When he birdied the par-3 5th, he went to 14 under and had a five-stroke lead. He gave a stroke back on the next hole but he kept the comfortable lead with six straight pars before making a two-putt birdie on the par-5 12th that put him four in front of Roberts.
Roberts got within two shots with birdies on 14 and 18 while Nielsen closed with six straight pars.
Nielsen played on the PGA Tour on a full-time basis from 1978-83 before becoming a club professional near Buffalo. He earned $119,416 in 124 starts on the PGA Tour from 1979 to 1996, making 75 cuts with two top-10 finishes.
Jay Haas, who won the last two weeks on tour and has four wins this year, closed with a 66, and finished with a 205.
Jay Sigel, who entered the final round tied for third, shot a closing 74 and failed in his bid to become the oldest winner in tour history. Sigel, who will turn 64 in November, finished at 208.
Divots: The tour heads to Whistling Straits in Wisconsin for the U.S. Senior Open, the first of three majors in a five-week span. Allen Doyle is the defending champion. … The others to get their first senior win here were Don Bies (1988), Dana Quigley (1997) and Bobby Wadkins (2001). … Harris closed with a 72 and was seven behind Nielsen. He was trying to become the fifth player to successfully defend this title. … Mike Fetchick, who won the Hilton Head Seniors Invitational in 1985 on his 63rd birthday, is the oldest Champions Tour winner.