Nielsen rallies to win at En-Joie

Nielsen rallies to win at En-Joie

ENDICOTT, N.Y.(AP) When Fred Funk birdied the fifth hole on the final round of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, he squinted at Lonnie Nielsen’s line on the leaderboard and then turned for some help.

“I go to my caddie, ‘I can’t quite read that. Does it say 14?’ “ Funk said. “He goes, ‘No, it’s 18.’ Eighteen? How the heck could it be 18? Then he told me what he (Nielsen) did. What a great start. You wouldn’t dare dream that.”

They don’t get much better.

Nielsen began with birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie on Sunday to quickly erase Funk’s three-shot lead and went on to beat Funk and Ronnie Black by three shots. Nielsen shot a 9-under 63 to finish at 21-under 195, a record in the three-year history of the event.

“Gosh, I never could have dreamt of a start like that,” Nielsen said. “To be 6 under after five (holes)? Beyond belief.”

The victory came a day before his 56th birthday. The only other tournament Nielsen has won – the 2007 Commerce Bank Championship on Long Island – came two days after he celebrated his 54th.

“This is the time of year I start to play,” said Nielsen, whose best previous finish this year was a tie for third at the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in April.

It’s been a long road for the Iowa-born Nielsen, who quit the PGA Tour more than two decades ago to take a club job in Orchard Park, N.Y. that he kept for 20 years.

“I tried this back in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” said Nielsen, who still spends half the year in Buffalo Bills country. “After playing six years on the regular tour, I just didn’t believe in myself.”

He does now.

“I’ve never had a week like that,” said Nielsen, the 11th different winner on tour this year.

It was the fourth straight finish of seventh or better for Funk (69), who was bidding to become the first player to win a PGA Tour event and a Champions Tour event on the En-Joie Golf Club course. He won the B.C. Open in 1996 at En-Joie.

“I didn’t have the run of birdies I needed,” Funk said. “It’s disappointing. I would have liked to have scared him.”

Black (66) had not won in 498 starts – 484 on the PGA Tour and 14 on the Champions Tour, a span of 24 years, 11 months and 13 days since capturing the 1984 Anheuser Busch Classic – but he walked away feeling pretty good. His best career finish on the tour earned Black a spot in the next event, the 3M Championship at the TPC Twin Cities in Minnesota in two weeks.

Neilsen’s 60-foot putt at the par-5 third hole was key. It had to go over a ridge and he hit it too hard, but it bounced off the back of the cup and somehow dropped in for eagle.

“That might have saved me two shots. It was a huge confidence-builder,” said Nielsen, who had watched in amazement when his 25-foot putt on the first hole suddenly broke to the right a foot from the hole and dropped in the cup. “That ball had no reason to do what it did. I was off and running.”

It was down to Nielsen and Funk after that.

Nielsen birdied No. 4 and went for the green with a hybrid on his second shot at the 565-yard, par-5 fifth, statistically the easiest of the day. The ball landed in a greenside bunker and Nielsen blasted to 5 feet and made birdie for a two-shot lead.

Nielsen parred the next six holes, while Funk made birdies at Nos. 5 and 6, curling in a perfectly paced 10-foot putt to tie for the lead. But the touch that produced 17 birdies in rounds of 64 and 65 the first two days wasn’t there again, and Funk failed to make another birdie.

“I watched Fred make my jaw drop yesterday,” said Nielsen, who made three birdies on the back nine to pull away. “You know it’s hard to maintain that over three days. I don’t know why I did.”

If Nielsen hadn’t yet figured it was his day, he had to be reassured on the closing two holes. His tee shot at the par-3 17th hit in the rough and caromed back onto the green and he made par. Then his tee shot at 18 hit a tree along the right side and ricocheted back onto the fairway, and he managed to score his final birdie of the tournament and finish a second straight round without a bogey.

Nielsen is a contributor to Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere, and he was convinced that was a big reason he finished with 24 birdies and one eagle. He donates $50 for each birdie and $500 for each eagle.

“It helps give them a place to play, makes them feel part of society again,” Nielsen said. “I felt I needed to do something. I think it’s a big reason I won. I could feel them pulling for me.”

Divots:Craig Stadler withdrew before the start of the final round with a sore Achilles’ tendon. … Overall, the field average for the tournament was 70.429, the lowest of the year for a full-field, 54-hole event. … Wayne Levi finished at 6 under and tied for 33rd in his first tournament since undergoing a heart bypass.

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