Nielsen Enjoys Being the Defending Champ

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Champions TourEAST MEADOW, N.Y. -- Lonnie Nielsens last few days have been unlike any hes had as a big-time professional golfer.
 
This is the first time for me doing this as a defending champion, Nielsen said Thursday, the day before he was to tee it up as the reigning champion of the Commerce Bank Championship on the Champions Tour.
 
Nielsen played on the PGA TOUR full-time from 1978-83 with his best finish a tie for fifth at Quad Cities in 1979. He then became a club pro and was successful on the New York State PGA circuit, winning 32 times from 1984-2003.
 
But it was his 14-under 199 total at the Red Course at Eisenhower Park last year that gave him a two-stroke victory over Loren Roberts and his first Champions Tour win in his fourth full year on the over-50 circuit.
 
It was a big confidence boost to me, Nielsen said. You have a feeling of belonging, of getting over a big hurdle because you are playing with World Golf Hall of Famers, major champions and on and on. Everyone out here has such a great resume and that win has been a big reason for my success the last year.
 
Since winning on Long Island, Nielsen has had nine top 10 finishes, including ones in the U.S. Senior Open and British Senior Open. He tied for seventh last week and is 13th on the current money list with $574,759.
 
Nielsen smiled broadly when asked about what followed last years victory.
 
It felt like it went on for about a month. It was exhausting yet absolutely sheer joy, he said. Driving from the golf course my voice mail was full and by the time I listened to the messages, it was full again. Then we got in the plane and it was full again. We got to hotel and there were 150 e-mails. I heard from people I didnt know but they had some sort of connection with me. It was the most fun part of the whole deal. It was such a cool week and then I got to the next tournament and had the other players pat me on the back and welcome me to the club.
 
Nielsen is one of seven former champions playing in the $1.6 million event that has a first prize of $240,000.
 
Jeff Sluman, who won for the first time on the Champions Tour last week at the Bank of America Championship, said being a six-time winner on the PGA TOUR took nothing away from his latest win.
 
Its nice to win any time, any place in any event from junior golf to professional, he said, adding nothing changes to the way these golfers approach the end of a tournament. You just want to win. The rush of competition gets in your blood.
 
Nick Price has yet to win in his second full season on the Champions Tour. The three-time major champion, who was ranked No. 1 in the world during the 1990s, has seven top 10 finishes this year, including six of his last seven events.
 
I was just burnt out in 2005. I was playing the same schedule at 47 that I was playing at 31 or 32 and I hit a brick wall, the 51-year-old said. The Champions Tour has been a breath of fresh air but my game was behind. Slowly, toward the end of last year I felt it was coming back. This year I have built on that. Every week Ive had a chance to finish in the top 10 and Ive had three chances out here to win.
 
You still get the butterflies, have that apprehension. We all enjoy that when we are in control of our game. Every guy here feels the exact same way and wants to be in the hunt on Sunday on the back nine.
 
One golfer hoping to have that feeling return quickly is Peter Jacobsen, who is playing for the first time since March when he had knee replacement surgery.
 
I have a renewed spirit now. Im ready to play, but probably not ready to win, said Jacobsen, a two-time winner on the Champions Tour. The doctor told me to go play.
 
Divots
 
Other former champions in the field are Bruce Fleisher (1999, 2000), Jim Thorpe (2003, 2004), Dana Quigley (1997), Bobby Wadkins (2001), Ron Streck (2005) and John Harris (2006). The course, a county-owned public facility which hosted the 1926 PGA Championship, will be a par 71 at 7,082 yards. There are five members of the World Golf Hall of Fame in the field: Price, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Isao Aoki and Curtis Strange.
 

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