The golf careers of Lonnie Nielsen and Jerry Smith follow remarkably similar paths.
Both were born and raised in Iowa. Both became one of the state’s top amateur golfers in their eras, winning an Iowa Amateur along the way. Both made it to the PGA TOUR, with lukewarm success. Both worked as club pros before joining the PGA TOUR Champions, where they reached the winner’s circle.
And Smith is about to join Nielsen as a member of the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined Tuesday night at Hyperion Field Club. Nielsen was inducted in 2010.
But here’s a first. Both will be playing in the same PGA TOUR Champions event for the first time when they tee it up at the Principal Charity Classic starting Friday at Wakonda.
Nielsen, a native of Belle Plaine who retired after the 2012 season, is playing here on a sponsor’s exemption. Smith, a full-time PGA TOUR Champions member, is from Oskaloosa.
Three native Iowans have won on the senior tour. Tom Purtzer, a four-time winner, was born in Des Moines but moved when he was 3 years old. Purtzer was also in the field for this year’s Principal Charity Classic before withdrawing. But since his time in Iowa was so limited, his Iowa status is shaky.
So for the sake of argument, Smith and Nielsen are the only Iowa high school products to win on the PGA TOUR Champions. The two visited Monday night at a function hosted by Jim Carney, another former Iowa Amateur winner and a Wakonda member.
“I didn’t really know Jerry, but I talked to him for quite awhile,” Nielsen said. “He’s loving life out here.”
Nielsen played in 125 PGA TOUR events. His best finish was a tie for fifth at the 1979 Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad City Open.
But life on the PGA TOUR Champions worked out much better for Nielsen. He won the Commerce Bank Championship in 2007 and the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in 2009.
“Those guys kicked me in the butt the first time around, and I figured they probably would the second time,” Nielsen said. “But my mulligan was much better.”
Nielsen chalks off his tepid PGA TOUR success to a fear. Of work.
“I was just in a different place in my life,” Nielsen. “I was so anxious. The thought of work really bothered me. It turns out that work wasn’t so bad. I wish I had realized that the first time.”
Nielsen took a job at a club pro at Crag Burn Golf Club in East Aurora, N.Y. It was a dream job.
“It was just the absolute perfect place for me,” Nielsen said.
He also had a successful playing career as a club pro, which got him ready for the PGA TOUR Champions.
Nielsen retired from the senior set after the 2012 season, and an aching knee played a huge factor. He had his left knee replaced in 2013. He had the same operation to replace his right knee in 2010.
“I have no pain anymore,” Nielsen said. “It’s such an unbelievable blessing, really.”
And now he’s back with the boys in an Iowa homecoming of sorts.
“I’m looking forward to the week,” Nielsen said.
Smith said that having two members of the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame in the same event gives him some Iowa pride.
“No question,” Smith said.
Smith made his PGA TOUR Champions debut at the 2014 Principal Charity Classic, playing on a sponsor’s exemption. He made the tour through qualifying in 2015, and has played well enough to keep his playing status the past two years.
That includes a victory at the 2015 Encompass Championship. He’s also had a pair of thirds and seven Top 10 finishes. Smith played in 153 PGA Tour events, with one third-place finish and six Top 10s.
“The golf courses are not overwhelming like they are on the regular tour these days,” Smith said. “A lot of the guys out here have made their fortunes. Granted, they are still working hard and playing hard. But I don’t know if they’re putting in quite the effort they did on the regular tour. And I think guys like Lonnie and I, when we got out here, we were hungry.”
This is the first time Nielsen has played in the Principal Charity Classic at Wakonda. He tied for 10th in 2010 and tied for 17th in 2009 at Glen Oaks. Smith’s best finish was a tie for 14th last year.
Smith won better than $600,000 in each of the last two years. He’s currently 43rd on the money list with earnings of $163,592.
“We’re only through 10 tournaments, but the quality of depth is a little stronger this year,” Smith said.
By Rick Brown, Principal Charity Classic Senior Reporter
Editor’s note: Rick Brown has written about the two Iowa Golf Hall of Fame members in this year’s field, but there will actually be another covering the tournament. Congratulations to the author himself on being named a 2017 Iowa Golf Hall of Fame inductee. Rick is an 11-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year winner and a true champion of the game of golf. We are proud to feature his work on PrincipalCharityClassic.com. Congrats, Rick!