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Archive for Saturday, September 22, 2001

Vietnam veteran Nelson in front

Patriotic golfer leads three competitors by single stroke at SAS Championship

September 22, 2001

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— In a way, it's fitting Vietnam veteran Larry Nelson has the first-round lead at the SAS Championship.

On a day filled with emotion, tears and patriotism, Nelson shot a 7-under-par 65 Friday at the new Senior PGA Tour event in central North Carolina to lead three others by one shot.

Nelson's solid round at the 7,137-yard Prestonwood Country Club layout matched his low opening 18 holes of the season and helped get his mind off last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that has the nation on edge.

"Last week would have been too quick," Nelson said when asked if he was ready to get back to business. "This week I feel like it's time to try to get back to normal. I was ready."

He showed it by posting birdies on six of his first eight holes, including a stretch of five straight.

"Once I step inside the ropes it really doesn't matter what's going on out there," Nelson said. "But my outside-the-rope time the last 10 days has been very involved."

Nelson was drafted and served in combat in Vietnam. He has sons aged 23 and 25 who he now worries about.

"There are a lot of things that go through your mind," said Nelson, who had a front-nine 30. "I certainly hope they don't have to go through anything like (Vietnam). I know my father wished I hadn't."

Monday qualifier Jay Overton was among those tied for second at 6-under 66. Doug Tewell and Isao Aoki were also one shot behind Nelson.

Leading money winner Bruce Fleisher shot a 67 and was two shots off the pace.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was among those who gathered at the 10th tee at noon for a moment of silence to honor those killed or injured in last week's terrorist attacks.

A horn sounded to stop play and the Cary High School band played the national anthem in front of about 500 fans. Eleven-time Grammy-award winner Shirley Caesar then sang "God Bless America."

Golfers Walter Morgan and David Lundstrom were among those surrounding the tee who wiped away tears during the emotional ceremony.

Overton said he was getting ready to tee it up at nearby No. 18 when the horn sounded.

"I hit the ball 105 yards from the flag, which is about 35 yards further than I can hit one," said Overton, whose eyes filled with tears when asked about the moment. "I was amped up. I was standing by Jesse Patino and he was singing the national anthem. It was pretty special."

Overton said he and his caddie stopped at 20 stores Thursday, searching for a pin to wear or flag to put on his golf cart. There were none to be had.

But Overton and the rest of the 78-player field were handed hats with "United We Stand" on them before teeing off.

"I was in kind of a funk, and then they gave us these hats on the first hole,"

Overton said. "It was like, 'Hey, we're here for a reason, let's go do it."'

Nelson's round could have been better, but he had 30 putts. He missed a 10-foot eagle putt on No. 17 when he misread it, and couldn't convert a 15-footer below the hole on the 18th green.

Nelson is shooting for his fifth victory of the season on the 50-and-over circuit.

"In the first two years I didn't get off to good starts and it seemed like I was always trying to catch up on Saturday and Sunday," Nelson said.

"It was hard to get motivated. People don't realize how important it is out here to get off to a fast start."

NOTES: Mark McCumber shot a 2-over 74 in his senior tour debut. ... Leonard Thompson started with four straight birdies, but managed just a 1-under 71. ... Jim Thorpe's quest for three consecutive wins began with a first-round 73. ... Hale Irwin's streak of seven straight opening rounds of par or better was snapped with a 73.

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