During the early 2000s, when I was assistant coach for the boys golf team that I now coach, our team had the extraordinary privilege to use the Crag Burn golf club as our home course. Crag Burn is a demanding course, and unless you know it well, it treats the home team as it does the visiting team: sternly.
The real privilege, from my perspective, was the welcome offered by the then-director of golf, Lonnie Nielsen. Mr. Nielsen had played the PGA Tour for six years, before he began a 20-year stint at the East Aurora club. His WNYPGA playing record (and the number of local course records that he set) was unmatched, and he tied for 11th as PGA Professional at the 1986 PGA Championship.
Each day that our bus would arrive, either the golf course or the practice facility would be at our disposal. Mr. Nielsen and his staff of professionals would ensure that all was in order for the day’s events, and would visit with the team, to offer encouragement and insight.
Buoyed by these courtesies, I walked up to Lonnie one day and asked if I might be allowed to take lessons from him. Some private clubs do not allow non-members to take lessons, but he assured me that it would be all right, if …
Why do you want to take lessons from me? he asked. I knew the answer, and it went something like this: I expect to be head coach one day (editor’s note: I now coach our girls in the spring, and our boys in the fall) and know that I will have golfers with greater skill and potential than my own. I KNOW how to get them to my level, but I need to know what to look for, to get them to YOUR level of ability and competence. Well, he pondered, smiled, nodded, and offered his hand. I took five lessons from him, and learned a few secrets that I would never have discovered on my own.
Mr. Nielsen went off to play the Senior Tour (now PGA Tour Champions) where he had wonderful success. He won twice, finished in the top-five a number of times, and found the gratification that had escaped him on the regular tour. Before he left to compete, he shared a story with me, about the type of lesson we all must impart in life, to the types of students we all encounter as teachers, friends, parents, and colleagues.
For those who haven’t visited, the practice facility is separated from the first tee by a stand of tall pine trees. That knowledge is central to this story. I’ll now paraphrase what Mr. Nielsen told me~
This well-to-do father brought his athletic son for a lesson. I watched him hit a few balls on the range, and immediately noticed two things: the boy had a very strong grip and hit lots of low pulls, and the father had an opinion and an excuse for everything. I quietly picked up the bucket of balls and walked him over to the area around the first tee. It was a quiet afternoon, and no one was around. I told the student to hit some balls over the trees. As you can imagine, he hit five shots dead into the branches. I told him that I would be back in twenty minutes, and headed for the pro shop. Well, the father stormed after me, asking what kind of teacher I was.
Successful people often like to talk about their own accomplishments, and this father subscribed to that trait. I asked him about his business achievements while in the pro shop, and twenty minutes passed pretty quickly. We walked back to the pines, and there was his son, hitting balls over the trees. The father’s jaw dropped, and he had nothing to say. I told the student that he had just proven to himself that HE could figure out problems for himself, whether at practice or in competition. I mentioned to the father that young people don’t always need to instructed, but that they sometimes need to be left alone to figure things out on their own.
So much to offer. Lonnie Nielsen imparted his experience, his wisdom, his knowledge, to so many members of the western New York golf community. That dementia robbed him of his last years, that it robbed his family of their father and spouse, that it robbed us of him, is part of life’s cruelty. As long as we remember all that life gave him, and that he gave us, we will forever remember that life can be kind. Rest in peace and glory, Mr. Nielsen. Your lessons live on.