SONOMA, Calif. – Lonnie Nielsen took a one-shot lead at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship on Thursday, but the leaderboard was just as crowded as the standings for the Champions Tour’s biggest prizes.

Nielsen shot a steady 6-under 66 at Sonoma Golf Club to edge past Jerry Pate early in what seems certain to be a dramatic final event of the tour’s 25th season. Every significant award still is up for grabs, including the season-long points competition for the Schwab Cup and its $1 million annuity.

Dana Quigley, the tour’s money leader, three-putted the 18th hole to finish among nine players at 3 under, one stroke behind Bruce Fleisher.

Nielsen, a longtime club pro in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, has a lead for the first time in 52 career appearances on the tour. He squeaked into the elite 30-man field in 28th place on the money list, but played an impressive opening round under near-perfect conditions in the heart of Northern California’s wine country.

“It’s a dream come true for somebody like me, from where I was coming from,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen was bogey-free, opening the round with consecutive birdies and missing just two greens in his quest for his first tour victory. He played alongside Mark Johnson, a former beer-truck driver, in a pairing of amateurs who found unexpected pro success after 50.

“I think there’s a real bond among us club pros or amateurs who come out and play against people we’ve been watching for their whole careers,” Nielsen said. “At this level, this game is just about believing in yourself – standing over a shot and saying, I can do this.”‘

Several more accomplished players still are in prime position. Quigley was joined by Tom Watson, Craig Stadler, Gil Morgan and Loren Roberts at 3 under, with Jay Haas one stroke behind.

Quigley tops the tour’s money list with slightly more than $2 million, and his 2,346 points put are 345 ahead of Hale Irwin in the Schwab Cup race. If Quigley wins, he plans to donate the $1 million to charity.

But 13 players still have a mathematical shot at the Schwab Cup, since the award points are tripled in this season-ending event. In a bit of fuzzy math that displeases several players, the winner of this tournament gets 1,320 points – more than enough to erase most deficits.

The tournament winner will take home $440,000 of the $2.2 million purse – but with the Schwab Cup points competition finishing simultaneously, as well as the race for Player of the Year honors, everybody in the field has plenty of reasons to play hard.

Irwin, who’s right behind Quigley both on the money list and the points race despite playing five fewer events, shot an even-par 72 despite three late birdies. Defending champion Mark McNulty and Tom Kite also shot 72.

Pate, whose promising PGA career was derailed by a variety of physical ailments, made seven birdies despite a painful flare-up on his left hip, perhaps from a sciatic nerve. After stretching on the grass during his round, he finished with consecutive birdies on 16 and 17.

“I wasn’t really excited about the round, wasn’t disappointed with any bogeys,” Pate said. “It’s just important to get some confidence in that first round of a 72-hole tournament.”

AP-ES-10-27-05 2008EDT

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