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A Golf Dream Come True

Ryan Nelson sharpened his golf skills on the Adams Pro Tour and will fulfill his lifelong dream this week at the U.S. Open
by: University of Portland Athletics Ryan Nelson chips out of a bunker during his all-conference golf career at the University of Portland. Nelson, a 1996 Forest Grove High School grad, qualified for the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.

The weekend before the U.S. Open, most competitors were no doubt on the golf course fine-tuning their game.

Ryan Nelson was driving a U-Haul truck halfway across the country.

Earning an invitation to participate in one of professional golf's biggest annual tournaments didn't let Nelson push the snooze button on life. As was previously scheduled, he and his family were forced to make the move last week from Dickinson, Tex., to Charleston, S.C., while daydreaming of his dream come true.

With the move complete, Nelson, a 1996 graduate of Forest Grove High School, can finally turn his focus to preparing for his debut appearance at the U.S. Open in Bethesda, Md. The milestone has come rather abruptly in his professional career, which began in earnest just a few years ago.

Nelson worked as a golf pro for several years after graduating from the University of Portland, but finding time to put in hours golfing was not as easy. It wasn't until a group of club members at the Bay Oaks Country Club in Houston, Tex., pooled their resources to help fund Nelson's professional efforts.

'That provided him some seed money for entry fees,' Ryan's father, Paul Nelson, said. 'It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to get him started.

'It was a risk somewhat, but he had a lot of confidence in himself.'

In his first season in 2008, Nelson played 10 events on the Adams Golf Pro Tour Series, making the cut eight times and earning just over $12,000. In 2009 he expanded his involvement and played 15 events, making the cut in 13 and earning his first professional win at the Horseshoe Rock Resort Classic, which netted a $15,000 check.

But 2010 was Nelson's breakout year. Not only did he make the cut in all 14 events he played, he won two tournaments, finished 11th or higher all but once and ended the year at the top of the Adams Tour's money list and player rankings, earning more than $64,000.

This year Nelson will compete in the eGolf Professional Tour, which places the majority of its events in North and South Carolina. Nelson and his wife, the former Michelle Hase and another Forest Grove graduate, are moving for Michelle's post-doctorate placement at the University of South Carolina, where she will be involved in cancer research. But the move is also a good one for Ryan - his father says the eGolf Tour is 'better league, better competition' than the Adams Tour, which is based primarily in and around Texas.

That will help Nelson's goal of advancing to more prominent golf leagues, including the Nationwide Tour and the PGA Tour. At 33 years old, Nelson is a bit of a late bloomer to be making his first appearance at a major golf event. His mother, Lisa Nelson, said everyone in the family has played golf 'at some point' and that Ryan has been playing since he was 7 or 8 years old, when his grandfather cut the shaft off one of his wooden golf clubs and gave it to his grandson.

Even so, golf didn't become his sport of focus until sixth grade, when he gave up baseball and shifted his interests. But despite getting into golf late, Forest Grove golf coach Ron Romanick said Nelson is 'the best golfer that's come through in the time that I've been the coach at Forest Grove.'

According to Romanick, the golf equipment used in today's game is far superior to what players had access to in the mid-90s. Considering the equipment Nelson grew up using, no one before or after him at Forest Grove has been able to hit the ball with the same distance and accuracy.

Although some natural talent was involved, Romanick said no one else put in more hours golfing than Nelson.

'There were times when practice would be over, and he would stay until he needed to go home because he needed to watch his sister,' Romanick said. 'He'd go home and grab his sister and come back to the course and golf some more.'

That determination yielded a lot of success for Nelson in high school. He spent three years on the Vikings' varsity squad. His junior year he led the team to the state tournament and finished 11th individually, earning all-state honors. Nelson qualified individually his senior season and finished second on a rain-soaked course, one stroke behind the state champion.

Nelson's long game was always a strength, but like any successful player he benefited from a strong all-around game, whether teeing off or putting. That package of attributes - even ability regardless of the ball's lay - is critical for golfers competing at the game's highest levels.

'I might sound like Ryan's the best at everything he does, but I'm not exaggerating anything, I'm just telling the truth,' Romanick said. 'He did more things well than most kids and he worked hard, had the determination to work hard, and he's getting the rewards of that.'

Nelson's high school success earned him a scholarship to play at the University of Portland, where he was twice honored as an all-conference player. After college he spent several years working as a golf pro for various courses in Oregon and Texas. It wasn't until he was almost 30 that Nelson started playing professional tournaments.

Now he seems to have carved out a career in the professional ranks. Nelson has already earned more than $20,000 on just four eGolf Tour events this season, and his invitation to play at the U.S. Open this week was earned through a U.S. Open sectional qualifying tournament in Georgia. Nelson shot a six-under-par 66 on two consecutive rounds to tie for the victory at the sectional, which is the only qualification route for players from smaller professional tours like the Adams and eGolf.

Nelson plans to try and qualify for other Nationwide and PGA events through the same method - pre-tournament qualifiers. Another option is PGA Tour Q-School, which fields four rounds of tournaments that players can ascend through en route to earning a player card for the upcoming PGA season.

Nelson has participated in Q-School before, but his father said his game has 'abandoned him at that critical point,' and he has yet to advance past the second round.

In fact, his prospects in the U.S. Open qualifying tournament did not seem great for a similar reason: Nelson, who has been working with a swing coach for the past year and a half, has been making adjustments to his swing mechanics to improve his form. The transitional period can be rocky for any golfer, and Nelson had not been playing well in the weeks leading up to the sectional qualifier, according to his father.

'It really clicked for him a week ago Saturday. He figured that out, it made a huge difference,' Paul Nelson said. 'His swing coach is going to be his caddie this weekend [at the U.S. Open].'

And Ryan Nelson's parents will be his biggest supporters out on the course. Paul and Lisa Nelson flew out Tuesday for Maryland to watch Ryan in the first two rounds on Thursday and Friday. If Nelson makes the cut he will continue his play on Saturday and Sunday.

Paul Nelson is still recovering from a case of pneumonia he acquired this winter and has been in poor health since. But Lisa Nelson said staying home wasn't an option for him.

'There's no stopping him, he's going,' she said.

It is considered a long shot for Nelson to make the cut, much less place high in the tournament. But recent golf history is littered with underdogs that have performed well beyond expectations, and if Nelson's game continues its upswing, he could find himself playing through the weekend.

'There's nothing but upside for him,' Paul Nelson said. 'If he gets it together he could really make it memorable.'