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Rubenstein: ‘Nellie’ has overcome a lot in golf, life

Jim Nelford waves to the gallery after pulling his ball out of the cup

Rob Carr/AP

As a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame's selection committee, I'm not allowed to be involved in the nominating process. But I am certainly pleased that Jim Nelford, my boss when I caddied for him well back in the last century, and a long-time friend, has been inducted. The announcement was made Wednesday during a teleconference. Nelford was clearly moved by his induction.

"I always loved the game, even when I hated it," Nelford said, speaking from Bradenton, Fla. He's spent his life trying to unlock what he called "the mysteries of the game," as a player, analyst on television, and now, as a teacher.

Of course I've known that the announcement would be made since the selection committee met last month. Committee members are sworn to secrecy, so I couldn't speak about the upcoming announcement. But I've had plenty of time to think about Nellie, as his friends known him, and all he's accomplished in the game, and all he's overcome.

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When I speak of what Nelford, 57, has overcome, I am thinking about the terrible accident that almost took his life while he was water-skiing on Saguaro Lake in Scottsdale, Ariz. on Sept. 8, 1985. He'd fallen, and as the boat came to pick him up something went wrong. Nelford tried to push himself off the boat at it came right at him, figuring that was the only way he could save his life.

The propeller caught Nelford in his right arm, thigh and back. He was air-lifted to hospital and was soon undergoing two and a half hours of surgery. He nearly lost his mangled arm, the propeller having shredded it and broken it in nine places. He underwent skin grafts, and spent four weeks in the hospital. He would never regain the strength in his arm, and lost feeling in his hand because of damage to the ulnar nerve.

I was home in Toronto the morning of his accident. An editor at The Globe and Mail called me. I can still hear his words.

"What do you know about Jim Nelford in Arizona?" he asked.

I knew nothing except that Nelford lived there. I was then told that a wire report indicated that Nelford had been seriously injured in a boating accident. I immediately called Nelford's parents in Vancouver. His mother Frances answered the phone. She was packing to leave immediately to see Jim. Neither she nor Jim's father Terry knew their son's condition. They were so distraught I remember wishing I hadn't made the call.

Doctors considered amputating Nelford's right arm. His mother said no, he's a golfer, and instructed surgeons to do what they could to save his arm. Nelford somehow came through the surgery and extensive rehabilitation, although he would never be the same. Golf at the highest levels is tough enough without the physical handicaps Nelford faced.

Then there were the mental difficulties, which Nelford said were "ten times as tough" as the physical. He referred to nightmares, to not feeling safe again, to scar tissue, to having a completely different arm, to understand what war veterans feel when they're experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

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Nelford tried to play through and around his extensive injuries, and he did return to the PGA Tour. But he effectively left competitive golf in 1991, having given it his best shot. He won the Ben Hogan Award, given by the Golf Writers Association of America to a golfer who remains active in golf despite a physical handicap or serious illness.

Nearly 40 years have passed since I first became aware of Nelford. He won the 1975 and 1976 Canadian Amateurs, and almost won the 1977 championship at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. He swung right and putted left. I followed him, and was a few feet away when he holed a five-iron to eagle the par-four first hole in the second round. He shot 64 to tie the course record that Tommy Armour shot in the 1930 Canadian Open. I still have the slide of a photo I took of Nelford, smiling after he holed the shot. I remember his mother following him, and trying to hide behind trees so that her presence wouldn't distract Jim. Jim said during the teleconference that he was always thankful for his parents "giving me space at the right time." He wishes only that they were still alive so that they could share in his induction. As for that 1977 Canadian Amateur, Nelford led by four shots with one round to go but shot 75 as Niagara Fall's Rod Spittle shot 69 to win.

Later that summer I traveled to England to play the British Amateur at the Ganton Golf Club in Scarborough, England. I noticed Nelford on the first tee and asked if I might join him for a practice round. He invited me along. On a par-five on the front nine he ripped a one-iron within 30-feet of the hole and made the putt for an eagle, using a PING Zero putter. The blade was as big as a hockey stick. He could really roll his ball; it seemed to turn over forever. Nelford went to the fifth round of that 1977 British Amateur before losing that match. I was two up with three holes to play in my first match but lost on the last hole to Huw Evans, a player who represented Wales internationally. It was obvious to me that Nelford had a big future as a player. My future was in writing.

Nelford turned pro later that year. I caddied a few times a year for him. He was waiting to hit his second shot to the green at the par-five 11th hole during one Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. I was leaning on the bag while he waited for the green to clear. Suddenly the bag fell and I watched in horror as it tumbled to the ground, thinking it would hit Nelford's ball and he'd be penalized. It all happened in slow motion. But the clubs fell in such a way that the ball was between a couple. It didn't move.

I doubt I was much help to Nelford as a caddy, perhaps because I was too busy taking notes – the writer in me. But he did win a tournament and the $36,000 first prize that went along with it at the Essex club in Windsor. This was in 1983, and was one of the events on what was called the Tournament Players Series – a sort of satellite tour to the PGA Tour.

A few months later I was home and watching the final round of the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. Nelford was leading, and nearly finished. Dick Grimm, Mr. Canadian Golf, called to ask if I was watching. A few minutes later Nelford was in the clubhouse and leading. Only Hale Irwin could catch him. Irwin hooked his drive toward Carmel Bay on the par-five last hole. The ball ricocheted off rocks and back up to the fairway. Irwin birdied the hole to tie Nelford, and beat him in a playoff. So goes golf.

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That evening Nelford was at the airport when he ran into Tom Weiskopf, who told him he really won the tournament. Irwin had received a phenomenal lucky break. But Nelford said no, he didn't win the tournament, Irwin won. Nelford's voice was cracking; he was hurting.

That year I helped him write "Seasons in a Golfer's Life", an account of Nelford's experiences on the PGA Tour. It wasn't a biography, but it was his candid view of the life he'd been living. I applauded Jim then and I applaud him now for being so open. But he didn't know what was around the corner.

That was the water-skiing accident, and while it was a long time ago it obviously had a major and continuing impact on the course of his life. Jim has worked in television, including at the Masters and many Canadian events. He developed an intriguing and imaginative approach to teaching, based on what he had learned after his injuries led him to think deeply about what matters in the swing.

Jim stayed in the game and he still loves the game and he's made important contributions in many areas. Now he's in the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, where he belongs. Congratulations, my friend.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein

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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at rube@sympatico.ca . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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