Nineteen state championships in 23 years. Two straight National Coach of the Year Awards. An induction into both the Montana Coaches Association and Montana State Golf Association hall of fame. Tack on a prestigious Golf Digest award.
And Terry Nelson, 64, is not even thinking about retirement yet.
The Whitefish golf coach has attained a rare consistent greatness that has given him an almost mythical status in Montana’s coaching ranks. He’s shown no signs of slowing down – last year both Nelson’s girls and boys teams won state Class A championships.
“He’s a legend,” Whitefish Athletic Director Jackie Fuller said. “He’s just incredible.”
This year the National High School Coaches Association named Nelson Coach of the Year. Last year a different national organization gave him the same award. Golf Digest also honored him with the National Junior Development Award.
“I didn’t even know that award existed,” he said.
Last year his boys won by more than 40 strokes, while the second through fifth place teams were separated by only three strokes. The boys’ margin of victory was nearly as big the year before, the second of their current three-year championship streak. The girls had separate streaks in the past of five and seven championships in a row.
The girls now have 13 titles and the boys have six under Nelson.
Keith Evenson, who coached at Class A rival Havre for nine years, has gotten to know Nelson well over the years. He even nabbed a couple of state championships from Nelson, including a 2002 title in Whitefish.
“Every year, if you’re going to beat somebody, it’s Whitefish,” Evenson said. “Boys or girls.”
Evenson, who now lives in Kalispell, said he was always amazed at how Nelson worked not only with Whitefish’s golfers, but Evenson’s kids too.
“A lot of my kids would look to him like he was their coach,” Evenson said. “He’s without a doubt the finest golf coach in the state,”
Nelson played college basketball at Eastern Michigan. Afterward, he got a basketball coaching job at a Michigan high school. The school asked him to coach the school’s budding golf program too, despite Nelson’s lack of experience.
“I’d golfed a little bit, so they wanted me to coach,” he said.
So a fairly fluke coaching job in the 1960s was the beginning of a record-breaking career that will be honored once again with his August induction into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
In 1969 he moved to Whitefish and started a 12-year tenure as Muldown Elementary School’s principal. After Muldown, he was principal at Central Middle School for 13 years during which, in 1985, he began coaching Bulldog golf.
Whitefish’s golf prowess was already far ahead of other towns’ in Montana when he became coach, Nelson said. Much of that can be credited to Mike Dowaliby, a golf pro at Whitefish Lake Golf Club who started the town’s first junior golf program in the early 1970s. Today, Nelson says, the junior program’s prominence helps shape golfers at a young age. By the time they get to him, many already have refined games.
The community and the Whitefish golf course are to thank for carrying on Dowaliby’s program and helping the Bulldogs’ success, he said.
“This golf course is unquestionably the most supportive in the state,” he said.
Though golf is not a sport of sweat and injuries, Nelson said it is one of the most difficult because it requires intense thinking and focused discipline. He likes that kids don’t have to be “the biggest or fastest” to be the best.
“A lot of sports, if you get fired up or mad it helps you,” he said. “Not golf. It’s not a reaction sport.”
From a coaching point of view, Nelson said golf is a dream job. He said he almost always gets good students and he doesn’t have to worry about cutting kids because in golf “if you qualify, you play this week.”
“Being a golf coach is probably the best coaching job out there,” he said.
Retirement isn’t planned, Nelson said, especially when he has possibly the best golfers in the state for both girls and boys returning next year in Chelsea Rae and defending champion Sam Krause. Krause has the best average scoring of any Bulldog ever.
“Hopefully I’ll know when it’s time,” he said. “I still really enjoy it.”