Originally created 09/27/03

Nelson heating up down the stretch



CONOVER, N.C. -- Larry Nelson had a rather mundane year on the Champions Tour until this month.

Nelson, who has a win and a third-place finish so far in September, shot an 8-under 64 in the opening round of the Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn on Friday to share the lead with Bruce Fleisher.

Nelson could have taken the outright lead on the 18th hole, but he missed a 4-foot birdie putt.

"I wanted to shoot 63 very badly," said Nelson, who still had his best first round this season.

Bob Gilder was one shot back of the co-leaders, while Craig Stadler was in a group of three players two behind.

Scores were low at the new venue with 43 golfers under par.

"This course would be playing much different if the greens weren't so soft," said Gilder, who hit all 14 fairways and needed just 26 putts for his 65.

"Seeing guys at 5 under early helped the guys who were playing later," Nelson added. "We said, 'Well, maybe we can go low here."'

Stadler, who was playing with Nelson and Fleisher, was at 7 under coming to 18. But he three-putted for a bogey after getting a break when his approach shot flew high into the stands before bouncing down in play.

Nelson and Fleisher both took charge on the back nine.

Nelson had three birdies and an eagle in a four-hole stretch for a 31 on the back nine, while Fleisher reeled off five straight birdies before playing a sloppy 18th hole for par.

"You don't know when age is going to come and catch up with you, but I feel as good right now as I've felt ever since I've been out there," said Nelson, who has 17 Champions Tour wins in six full seasons. "I've always played fairly well when I've been healthy and right now I feel pretty good."

Nelson's key shot was an L-wedge on the par-5 14th that flew into the cup for an eagle from 80 yards. He followed that up by making a 6-footer to get to 8 under.

Five of Nelson's birdie putts were from 6 feet or closer.

"Larry looks very confident. He's really stroking the ball," Fleisher said.

Fleisher has won a tournament in North Carolina each of the last four seasons, including the 2002 RJR Championship, which was staged about an hour from here down Interstate 40.

"What is it about North Carolina? If I knew I would write a book and I'd sell it for a fortune," Fleisher said. "I just like the surroundings."

Fleisher said he didn't play better than Nelson, but still managed to hit all 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens.

The Champions Tour has had 25 players win so far with four tournaments left, trying the mark set in 1995.

However, Nelson, Fleisher, Gilder and Stadler all have victories in 2003.

"Hale (Irwin) dominated for so long," Fleisher said. "But whoever comes on this tour now is going to get a pretty good fight."

Only Tom Watson and Bruce Lietzke have won twice this season.

Last week's winner, D.A. Weibring, had an eagle on his final hole and was at 2 under.