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Jim Nelford waves to the gallery after pulling his ball out of the cup (Rob Carr/AP)
Jim Nelford waves to the gallery after pulling his ball out of the cup (Rob Carr/AP)

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

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.

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.

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.

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