As an amateur golfer playing for the University of Iowa, it was not uncommon for people to mistake Lonnie Nielsen for Jack Nicklaus. In the summer of 1974, Nielsen, then a Hawkeye sophomore, was at Pebble Beach playing a casual round when two kids approached him and asked him if he was the Golden Bear. Nielsen decided to play along—kind of. “I’m his son,” he told the youngsters, who then followed Nielsen for a few holes, asking him questions about the Golden Bear and life on the PGA TOUR. Relating the experience later, Nielsen smiled at the memory, admitting he never let on that what he was telling the kids wasn’t even close to the truth.
While Nielsen didn’t take part in any Nicklaus family gatherings, four years after that round on the Monterey Peninsula, Nielsen often found himself in a club’s locker room changing shoes near Nicklaus, the Golden Bear’s Nicklaus usually preceding Nielsen on the alphabetical locker assignments. The Belle Plaine, Iowa, native joined the TOUR in 1978 and played six full TOUR seasons before eventually reducing his schedule to become a PGA club professional.
Nielsen, who died Wednesday, Jan. 20, wasn’t always convinced he would play the sport professionally. Despite becoming one of the Big Ten Conference’s top players and the best amateur in Iowa in both 1974 and 1975, he wavered about taking his game on the road after earning a business degree from Iowa.
“I’d like to turn pro,” Nielsen would say, “but I don’t want to do it if I don’t think I can do well.”
Nielsen eventually did leave his amateur status behind, making 141 career TOUR starts in six complete seasons. What he couldn’t do was break inside the top 100 on the money list, his career-best finish coming not far from home—at the Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open, a tournament now known as the John Deere Classic. Nielsen tied for fifth that week. There weren’t enough of those weeks, which is what led Nielsen to choose the club pro route.
Following the 1983 season, Nielsen accepted the Director of Golf position at Crag Burn Golf Club in East Aurora, New York, where he became a dominant player in the Western New York PGA section, winning Player of the Year honors three times (1986-87 and 1989) and winning the New York State Open in 1985 and 1989. Competing as a club professional, he finished T11 at the 1986 PGA Championship at Inverness Club, a showing that has not been matched or surpassed by a club pro since.
Playing in the Western New York PGA section, Nielsen won more than 100 overall titles, and eventually the WNYPGA renamed its Player of the Year Award in his honor.
In 2003, after turning 50, Nielsen immediately began playing PGA TOUR Champions golf, joining the Tour full time in 2004. His breakthrough season came in 2007 after coming up short and finishing second at tournaments in both 2005 and 2006. At the 2007 Commerce Bank Championship in his adopted home state of New York, Nielsen shot a second-round 64 at Eisenhower Park’s Red Course in East Meadow to open a three-shot lead, eventually defeating Loren Roberts by two strokes. Nielsen finished 20th on the Charles Schwab Cup standings that season, then went on to his best PGA TOUR Champions campaign in 2008—without the benefit of a win.
In 2008, Nielsen turned in three runner-up showings among his nine top-10s. Roberts turned the tables on Nielsen at the Commerce Bank Championship, edging him by a shot. Two other close calls came at the hands of Bernhard Langer, who beat Nielsen at both the Ginn Championship at Hammock Beach Resort and the Administaff Small Business Classic. Nielsen closed that season 17th in the Schwab standings and 11th on the money list, surpassing the $1-million mark ($1,224,012) for the only time in his career. Nielsen’s second and final PGA TOUR Champions title also came in New York, at the 2009 Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, a three-hour drive from East Aurora. Nielsen carded a final-round 63 to defeat Ronnie Black and Fred Funk by three shots.
Nielsen was inducted into the Western New York PGA Hall of Fame in 2004, the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.
“My thoughts are with Lonnie’s family, including his wife, Mary Jo, and his kids Sarah, Mollie and Andrew,” said PGA TOUR Champions President Miller Brady. “Lonnie has given so much to this game, especially to the people of Upstate New York, and in Iowa, where he played collegiately. He was an incredible husband, father, friend and ambassador for the game of golf and I’m grateful for everything he’s done for this sport.”
Nielsen is survived by his wife, Mary Jo, two daughters, Sarah and Mollie, and a son, Andy.
Funeral services are pending.