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Pilot’s course set by mentor

McNelis’ career kick-started by LPGA pioneer Hicks


Commercial pilot Jim McNelis credits Betty Hicks with helping his golf career take off.

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When it comes to the difficult tasks of flying an airplane and making a golf ball fly into the air, Jim McNelis credits one individual for giving him direction — Betty Hicks.

McNelis, a commercial pilot playing in this week’s U.S. Senior Open at Inverness, ran into a bit of good luck when he met the late Hicks, a pioneer on the LPGA tour.

Their relationship began in 1974 when McNelis enrolled in an aviation course taught by Hicks at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif. After McNelis got his private license, Hicks then taught him to fly her twin engine aircraft. She then taught him to golf.

Hicks, who played in the only LPGA event Inverness has ever held, died Feb. 20, 2011. She was 90.

“When she was playing on the tour, to get around, she took lessons and became a pilot,” McNelis said Monday after wrapping up his practice round.

After Hicks showed McNelis a thing or two about air travel, she extended an offer for him to come to Saratoga Country Club where she was offering golf lessons. McNelis accepted the invitation and figures he returned for “two or three” sessions.

“I always tell everybody, I really started playing when I was 25, but I took my first lessons when I was 18, 19, from Betty,” McNelis said.

McNelis, a pilot for Alaska Airlines, earned a berth to the Open in June by winning a sectional tournament in the state of Washington. By playing in a tournament at Inverness, McNelis shares another bond with Hicks, who participated in the Inverness Invitational in 1954. The event, which was originally designed to bring the best PGA tour players to Toledo for two weeks, marked a first when it changed its format and invited Hicks and other LPGA stars from that era.

Caddying for McNelis is his son, Joey, who will be a sophomore golfer at the University of North Dakota. Like his father and his older brother Ryan, a pilot for Virgin America, Joey hopes to realize a career in aviation.

Another McNelis is competing in a prestigious event this week. Jim’s daughter, 14-year-old Maddy, is in Chicago representing the state of Washington in the Miss Teen International pageant.

“It was kind of unique that we both won something to go to a national event and they’re the same weekend,” McNelis said.

SAVE IT: The only way Rick Cloninger’s day could have been better was if it had counted.

The amateur from Fort Mill, S.C. gave himself the last putt of his practice round after hitting a wedge shot to inside one foot.

“I was 3-under for the day and I’d take four of those [rounds] right now, sign the card, and not even tee it up,” Cloninger said. “I had a pretty good day.”

Unfortunately, it was a practice round.

“I had six birdies,” he said. “The front nine was pretty good to me. I played it [Sunday] too, but today was my first look at the back nine and, wow, that’s a tough stretch of holes.”

Cloninger flew his approach to the tough 18th green right at the flag, saw it land about two feet past and spin back a tad. It was a shot he would never have attempted to a hard, firm green with a far back pin position.

“If there is no more rain, you’ll see the greens like they usually are by the weekend,” Cloninger said, “and you’ll have to be a lot more cautious and selective about where you hit approach shots.”

HOT, SOFT COURSE: Amateur Bill Barnes looked like just about every player who walked off either No. 9 or 18 after a practice round Monday – his light blue shirt soaked completely through — as a hot day was made worse by extreme humidity produced by recent storms.

“Whew,” Barnes said, “it’s a little hot. And fat men sweat a lot.”

All men sweat a lot on a day like that.

In addition to making Barnes and others perspire, the high humidity was keeping the course soft and Barnes found that more of a problem than his wet shirt.

“I came up and played three weeks ago and it’s a lot softer now,” said Barnes, who lives near Indianapolis in Carmel. “There’s no roll now, so guys who don’t hit it as far will struggle. I can carry 240-245 [yards] off the tee. If it’s firm, my ball will roll out to maybe 275. If not, it’s more like 255. Those 20 yards make a big difference when you’re playing a bunch of 460-yard par 4s like there are out here.

“Three weeks ago, I hit driver-6 iron on No. 17. Today, it was driver-rescue club. It will help if there’s no more rain, but the humidity is going to keep the course from getting too firm.”

OUT AND IN: Two-time Senior Open champion Allen Doyle and Champions Tour regular Tom Pernice both withdrew from the tournament Monday. They were replaced in the field by amateur Jack Weeks and non-exempt Champions Tour player Mike Hulbert. Both earned alternate spots in sectional qualifying tournaments.

HAT TRICK: Cloyce Wolfe, a spectator from Findlay, took off his OU cap and asked Hale Irwin to autograph it near the 18th green. “Oh, that hurts,” said Irwin, who played college football at Colorado. Wolfe explained it was an Ohio University hat, not Oklahoma. A relieved Irwin was happy to sign.

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