SONOMA, Calif. -- After this weekend, Ben Nelson can pay less attention to the weather forecast and more attention to his golf game.
After three years as tournament director for the Champions Tour, which came after a long run as a rules official on the PGA Tour, the 63-year-old Nelson is retiring to his native Mississippi with plenty of stories.
"I was coming back from the Hawaiian Open in 1994 on a charter plane with a bunch of players, and we landed in Los Angeles at 4:30 in the morning during the Northridge earthquake," Nelson said Saturday before the third round of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. "Our plane hits the ground and the earthquake was going on. Everybody was scared to death. Luckily nothing happened to the plane. The sun came up, and we were allowed in the terminal. The whole place was a mess, water coming out of the walls. We were real lucky."
While experiencing a 6.7 earthquake was out of the ordinary for Nelson, dealing with dodgy weather wasn't.
"I had a little heart problem a few years ago," Nelson said, "and my cardiologist told me to write down five things I could do to take stress out of my life. Two of the five were, 'Never go back to the International [near Denver].' That was the most stressful weather week every year. You could see the storms out there, and you knew they were coming. It was just a matter of what time they were going to hit. And the Memorial was no picnic, either. You pretty much knew it was going to rain there, too."
Nelson's career spanned a generation when golf took on a larger profile. "No question, TV became a bigger factor," he said, "especially with the Tiger phenomenon. If he was in the field, you were aware of how important it was to make television happy. You had to get as close as you could [to a scheduled finish time], because the networks were hounding you all the time. Somebody asked me once what my job was, and I said it was to have a winner on Sunday, hopefully at the right time."
One thing that hasn't changed, in Nelson's view, is the integrity of the players. "There's some inadvertent stuff [rules infractions], but I don't think anybody at this level knowingly cheats," Nelson said. "You hear rumors, but I just don't believe it. Not at this level. I believe they can't afford to. If they ever get caught, they're gone. These guys' reputations are more important than scores."
Nelson's reputation is simple: He is one of the gentlemen of the sport, and he will be missed.
*--Bill Fields *