Nielsen, Smith share Iowa pride and similar paths.

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.

Lonnie Nielsen.

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.

Jerry Smith.

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!


Q&A With Jerry Smith, Iowa Native and 2015 PGA TOUR Champions Rookie of the Year

Iowa native Jerry Smith, the reigning PGA TOUR Champions Rookie of the Year, is returning to his home state to play in the 2016 Principal Charity Classic. Smith, 52, who grew up in Oskaloosa, actually made his PGA TOUR Champions debut in this very event in 2014, playing on a sponsor’s exemption. Smith finished 28th on the PGA TOUR Champions money list last season with $652,365 after recording his first career Champions victory at the 2015 Encompass Championship.

Q: Does the PGA TOUR Champions feel more like home to you now?

JS: I would say yes. I’ve definitely done a lot out here in a short period of time, which has been very gratifying and satisfying. I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I went to the (qualifying) school a couple of times. And getting one of the five cards the second time around (for the 2015 season) made the beginning of last year a lot easier for me.

Q: In retrospect, you made the most out of your opportunity in 2015.

JS: To come right out on the PGA TOUR Champions last year and do well early and be in contention in Tucson (tied for 9th) put me a little bit at ease.  This tour is just different than the PGA TOUR. Everything about it seems easier as far as being able to prepare. There’s fewer players. You play a lot of pro-ams, so you’re out enjoying some of those rounds. That’s how I address those days. Just go out and enjoy the company with the amateur players. You’re just not grinding so much, it seems like, as you were on the PGA TOUR. All the guys out here are just really easy to play with. It’s very competitive. You see the scores, week in and week out, and know what you have to do.

Q: Does it feel any different now, playing on the PGA TOUR Champions with a victory to your name?

JS: Winning (the Encompass Championship) last year was huge. It was just one of those weeks there in Chicago that I literally made almost everything I looked at the first two days and got the lead. And even though the last round was a little up-and-down for me, once I was able to settle down – which didn’t really happen until the back nine – I was able to get the job done there. That lifted a lot off my shoulders, just being able to get a win. It’s tough. I was in contention a couple more times. I was there in Biloxi this year (tied for third), and I just faltered in the last few holes there.

Q: And now you return to your home state as a winner.

JS: I’m very excited coming back this year. Last year I felt like going into Sunday, if I could have gone out there and shot 65 or 66 I would have a chance (Smith tied for 41st after rounds of 69-70-74). I really feel I can do well at Wakonda. It’s the kind of golf course that’s tricky for the guys. I think they’re still trying to figure out Wakonda. A lot of guys feel they can do well, they just haven’t done it yet. It’s a tournament I’d love to be in contention in. To be in the state of Iowa and have a pretty good fan base, it would be a pretty special week.

Q: Isn’t Wakonda the kind of old-style course you guys don’t see every day on the PGA TOUR Champions?

JS: It’s a different golf course than the majority we play out here, with the blind shots and the uneven lies and the slanted fairways. It’s tricky, it’s tough, and the guys know it.

Q: Does this seem like a regular PGA TOUR Champions stop, or does it feel different because you’re in your old backyard?

JS: There’s no doubt it is a little tougher. A lot more fans come and watch and pull for me (than a normal event).  In those situations you always want to play well. Any player would say they probably put a little more pressure on themselves to do that.  It is different. I wouldn’t say I try to prepare different. You want to say “Hi” to everybody, you want to acknowledge everybody, you want to say thanks. It’s a different-feeling week. But it will be fun. I’m in a good place (24th on the money list.). I feel like I can come in there and hopefully just let it go a little bit more and be relaxed. Probably for most of us, that’s when we play our best. I feel like I can do well at Wakonda, and I always look forward to coming back there.

Q: What do your remember about your first career PGA TOUR Champions event at the 2014 Principal Charity Classic?

JS: I was fortunate to get an exemption there from Principal. It was great. I remember I played with Fuzzy (Zoeller) a couple of times that week. I remember going out there and making birdie on the first hole as a senior golfer. I just didn’t play well enough and didn’t putt well that week (Smith finished T75, 73-77-77). But it was a great start, and very memorable. And a great beginning to something that’s gone beyond what I could have expected so far in my senior career. Something hopefully I’ll be able to keep building on.

Q: Keeping your card on the PGA TOUR Champions is an accomplishment in itself, isn’t it?

JS: This tour is based on what guys have done on the PGA TOUR. It’s based on the amount of wins and money. After that it’s about what is going on currently. It’s Top 30, and that will change next year with the playoffs. It will go to 36. Myself, not having any wins or near enough all-time money (on the PGA TOUR) to be anywhere close to being exempt out here, I’m the type of player who has to stay in that fully exempt status year after year to make things easier for me. Obviously, I’d love to have as many years out here as I can. To do that, you have to play at a very consistent and high level and you need to win, if not every year, an every other year type thing. And its tough. It’s hard to get out here. It’s more difficult out here than any of the tours, as far as keeping status.

By Rick Brown, Principal Charity Classic Senior Reporter