ENDICOTT, N.Y. — Lonnie Nielsen was as amazed as anybody.
Nielsen shot a 9-under 63 on Sunday, vaulting past second-round leader Fred Funk with an impressive five-hole flourish at the start, and won the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open by three shots over Funk and Ronnie Black.
Trailing Funk by three shots entering the day, Nielsen started with four birdies and an eagle and pulled away on the back side to win for just the second time on the Champions Tour.
“What a start! I never dreamed I would start like that,” Nielsen said. “I had a lot of breaks go my way.”
The victory came a day before his 56th birthday. The only other tournament he had won — the 2007 Commerce Bank Championship on Long Island — came two days after he celebrated his 54th.
“This is the time of year I start to play,” said Nielsen, whose best previous finish this year was a tie for third at the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in April.
Nielsen finished at 21-under 195, a record in the three-year history of the event and three shots better than Eduardo Romero’s winning total a year ago.
“I’ve never had a week like that,” Nielsen said.
It was the fourth straight finish of seventh or better for Funk (69), who was bidding to become the first player to win a PGA Tour event and a Champions Tour event on the En-Joie Golf Club course. He won the B.C. Open in 1996 at En-Joie.
“You wouldn’t dare dream that (Nielsen’s start),” Funk said. “I didn’t have the run of birdies I needed. It’s disappointing. I would have liked to have scared him.”
Black (66) had not won in 498 starts — 484 on the PGA Tour and 14 on the Champions Tour, a span of 24 years, 11 months and 13 days since capturing the 1984 Anheuser Busch Classic.
Playing in the group ahead of Funk, Nielsen began his round with birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie, birdie — and suddenly had a two-shot lead. His 60-foot putt at the par-5 third had to go over a ridge and he hit it too hard, but it bounced off the back of the cup and somehow dropped in for eagle.
“That might have saved me two shots. It was a huge confidence-builder,” said Nielsen, who had watched in amazement when his 25-foot putt on the first hole broke back right a foot from the hole and dropped into the cup. “That ball had no reason to do what it did. I was off and running.”
It was down to Nielsen and Funk after that.
Nielsen birdied No. 4 and went for the green with a hybrid on his second shot at the 565-yard, par-5 fifth, statistically the easiest of the day. The ball landed in a greenside bunker and Nielsen blasted to 5 feet and made birdie for a two-shot lead.
Nielsen parred the next six holes, while Funk made birdies at Nos. 5 and 6, curling in a perfectly paced 10-foot putt to tie for the lead. But the touch that produced 17 birdies in rounds of 64 and 65 the first two days wasn’t there again, and Funk failed to make another birdie.
“I watched Fred make my jaw drop yesterday,” Nielsen said. “You know it’s hard to maintain that over three days.”
If Nielsen hadn’t yet figured it was his day, he had to be reassured on the closing two holes. His tee shot at the par-3 17th hit in the rough and caromed back onto the green and he made par. Then his tee shot at 18 hit a tree along the right side and ricocheted back onto the fairway and he managed to score his final birdie of the tournament and finish a second straight round without a bogey.
Nielsen, who played the PGA Tour from 1978-83 without much success, is a contributor to Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere, and he was convinced that was a big reason he finished with 24 birdies and one eagle. He donates $50 for each birdie and $500 for each eagle.
“It helps give them a place to play, makes them feel part of society again,” Nielsen said. “I felt I needed to do something. I think it’s a big reason I won. I could feel them pulling for me.”
Divots: Romero was the only player in the field with two eagles. Funk had 20 birdies and Black had just one bogey. … Nielsen’s 63 is the lowest final round by a winner on the Champions Tour this year.