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Ryan Nelson: Ex-UP golfer happy with game but unsure of future

by: COURTESY OF JOHN RICHARDSON JR. - Ryan Nelson, former University of Portland and Forest Grove High golfer, has played in two of the past three U.S. Opens but is still looking to move up from a mini-tour circuit based in the Carolinas, near his home in Charleston, S.C.Fresh off his second U.S. Open appearance in three years, 35-year-old Ryan Nelson still isn't sure whether he is coming or going as a competitive professional golfer.

Nelson, who played for the University of Portland and Forest Grove High, is in many ways encouraged by his game.

But, will he achieve the results needed to move up from the mini-tours? Or choose to tee off in a different life direction?

"I don't have the answer right now," he says.

From his home in Charleston, S.C., Nelson competes primarily on the eGolf Tour, which is third in the U.S. professional pecking order (after the PGA and Web.com tours).

Most of the eGolf Tour events are in North or South Carolina. Nelson has had success in the region — he was third on the money list in 2011, winning more than $83,000 in 11 events. He was 11th last year with nearly $46,000 in earnings in 19 starts. This year, he ranks 18th with $21,575, including $17,000 for winning the Irish Creek Open in March at Kannapolis, N.C.

But toiling in relative obscurity, and even winning eGolf Tour events — he also has captured the Cabarrus Classic, the Scratch Golf Championship and the Grand Harbor Open — ideally would be just a prelude to playing for a living on a larger stage.

And Nelson, who missed the cut at both the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and the 2013 Open at Merion this month, remains in pursuit mode.

"I feel really good about my game," he says. "I've played in two U.S. Opens. I've played some Web.com events. There's no question I have enough game to play with those guys … but getting out there is difficult."

It's not easy, first of all, to qualify on Mondays for Web.com events. It's even harder to earn invites or a tour card to play on the big PGA circuit.

Nelson — No. 1,545 on the World Golf Ranking list — says he's played "maybe eight times" in the PGA Tour's notoriously nerve-racking Qualifying School, a multi-round pressure cooker that takes place at the end of each season and can make or break both a player and his golfing career.

"I missed going to the finals there by two shots in 2011. Played my last five or six holes in like 3-over," he says. "That was a very bad winter."

Nelson and his wife, Michelle, met at Tom McCall Elementary School in Forest Grove. They started dating in the final months of their senior years at Forest Grove High.

"We had one date and then our next one was the prom," Ryan says.

While Ryan went to UP, Michelle attended Western Oregon University. She got her doctorate in 2011 and now works at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, doing cancer research.

Their first child, son Bryce, turned 3 a couple of weeks ago. Second child Brayden was born on May 24.

"Family is a factor you have to consider," Ryan says, of his career future. "I love being a father. It's more difficult now to leave to go play tournament golf. My 3-year-old knows what's going on."

If he wasn't playing golf for a living, he probably wouldn't be in the golf business at all.

"I don't think I'm interested in working in a golf shop or teaching again," he says. "If you're a teaching pro, you don't get to play golf, and you're there every weekend and holiday. Now that I have a family, I don't want to be working at the course all the time."

The Nelsons lived in Houston before moving to Charleston a couple of years ago.

"Obviously, we'd love to get back to Portland and the Northwest. It's still kind of home," he says. "But being gone these past eight years, we have gotten used to it being a little warmer. We really enjoyed our time in Texas and have enjoyed it in Charleston, as well."

As the 2013 season heats up, the 5-10, 190-pound Nelson is working a lot on his mental approach and shot game, "trying to sharpen things from 100 yards on in and get my putting to a consistently high level."

Playing in the recent U.S. Open, with its demanding setup and emphasis on precision, provided a complete test.

"There's a full examination of every part of your game," he says. "Can you drive it straight enough? Can you get up and down? How's your wedge game, your putting, your mental game, your nerves?"

His first U.S. Open was also his first PGA Tour event, and he felt the pressure of the moment.

"On the first tee, my mind went completely blank," he says. "I was so nervous, I wasn't sure what end of the club to hold."

At Merion, after earning co-medalist honors in a qualifying event, he was calmer and "knew what to expect — where to get the courtesy cars, things like that," he says.

And his expectations were different.

"I fully expected that if I played my regular game, I could make the cut," he says.

He didn't quite make it.

"I didn't play well," he says.

Wet weather disrupted the Open playing schedule at Ardmore, Pa., leaving Nelson to finish his second round on Saturday morning instead of Friday.

"With two holes to play, I was right on the cut line," he says.

It took a 148 total for 36 holes, 8-over-par, to earn a spot in the final two rounds. Nelson was 8-over as he stepped to the tee at the 236-yard, par-3 ninth hole (his 17th of the second round).

"I mishit an iron into the water," he says.

He recovered for bogey, only to run into more trouble on his finishing hole, the 303-yard, par-4 10th.

"It's a birdie hole," he says. "But I tried to steer an iron off the tee and blocked it right into a sand trip. I didn't have a good stance and hit that one into a greenside bunker. The ball plugged in the sand, and that was that."

He went on to make a double bogey for a 151 total and second-round 78.

The disappointing finish didn't dampen his otherwise warm thoughts about historic Merion, site of Bobby Jones' Grand Slam-clinching victory in 1930.

This was the first U.S. Open at Merion since 1981. The course was thought to be too small for today's equipment and long bombers. Some observers had predicted low scoring, possibly record scores. But the course — with its difficult greens and long rough — befuddled most everyone, and the winner, Justin Rose, finished at 1-over.

"People were saying there'd be a 62 and that 16-under (the tournament record set by Rory McIlroy in 2011) was in danger," Nelson says. "I was laughing about that — did those people go out and see the course? There was no chance of that happening.

"As a championship golf course, I think it was fantastic," Nelson says. "The (United States Golf Association) got a little unlucky with the weather, and it made the greens a little soft. But if the greens had been firmer, the winning score could have been 7- or 8-over. A few of the greens you couldn't have kept your ball on."

The problem with Merion was more the infrastructure. The course didn't have room for everything that goes with a modern U.S. Open. Players had to be shuttled back and forth from makeshift practice ranges to the course, interview area and so forth, and galleries were smaller than usual.

"Logistically, it was a very difficult setup," Nelson says. "It was awkward warming up one place and then having to take a shuttle for 10 minutes and then walk to the 11th tee to play your first hole."

Given all those challenges, Nelson says, "I don't know if they would go back to a smaller property like that" for another U.S. Open.

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