Larry Nelson cruises to first-round lead at Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, thanks to a new putter

LUTZ — For the past three-plus years, Nick Price has been trying to find his game. And for more years than he can count, Larry Nelson has been trying to find a putter.

For one day anyway, both golfers might have found what they were looking for.

Nelson, 61, shot 6-under 65 Friday to lead Price by one after the opening round of the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am at TPC Tampa Bay. Mark McNulty and Mike McCullough were at 4 under.

Nelson had a bogey-free round that included three birdies on each nine, giving him sole possession of a Round 1 lead for the first time since 2001. And it was his best opening round since the 2007 Boeing Championship.

"It was definitely one of my better putting rounds in a few years," Nelson said. "I think that's what has been really difficult for me. It's one of the things that kept me from doing well."

Nelson said he is constantly searching for the right putter. He routinely tests new ones and tinkers in his basement trying to build the perfect flat stick. He put one together Monday night then threw it in his trunk before heading to Lutz.

He didn't pull the putter out until Friday morning. After a few swings on the practice green, Nelson decided to put it in his bag.

"I always experiment with putters," said Nelson, who hasn't won on the Champions Tour since 2004. "It was really early on the practice green (Friday) morning when I used it. It felt pretty good. It carried over to the rest of the day. I'll probably use the same putter (today). I can't guarantee it, but right now I think I will."

Price, 52, has been bothered by more than putters. His game started to head south in 2005 when he said he tried to add length to compete on the PGA Tour. He joined the senior circuit in 2007, but the three-time major winner didn't find things any easier.

He did finish third at the Senior PGA Championship as a rookie. And he tied for second twice last year. But many think he should have been a winner by now.

"I'm just glad I got my game back," Price said. "For a while there, I thought it was gone. I didn't think I would ever play well again. I struggled so badly through 2005, 2006 and my first year out here. I lost my game, pure and simple. I couldn't hit the ball anything like I was."

Friday's round proved he can still play at a championship level.

"I think golf is just like life where you go through peaks and valleys," he said. "How about the economy? I think we've been through the worst. We have bottomed out, and we're starting to come back up. It might be slowly, but that's how I felt with my golf game."

Nelson has always been a steady golfer. He started his professional career playing satellite tour events in the Tampa area. He won 10 times on the PGA Tour and another 19 on the Champions Tour. He took the 1999 GTE Classic championship in Lutz.

"We wouldn't be out here if we didn't think we could do this," Nelson said. "It's just that sometimes we're not able to. Most of the time, it seems lately, I haven't been able to."

And his search for the right putter will continue, although he swears putters are the only things he changes.

"I've had the same wife for 42 years," he said, "so it's not like I can't find something I like."

Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes.com, golf@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

Larry Nelson cruises to first-round lead at Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, thanks to a new putter 04/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 1:05am]

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