How a 'Never-Give-Up Attitude' Has Pushed Jamie Nieto, PGA, Past Personal Adversity
By Roger Graves
Note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 2023 issue of PGA Magazine.
Nov. 8, 2003, was Jamie Nieto’s 20th birthday. He was celebrating by working at his favorite place, Oak Park Country Club in River Grove, Illinois. It was a slow day, and when his supervisor asked who wanted to leave early, Nieto happily volunteered.
“I arrived at home and decided to continue some yard work I had started earlier in the week,” recalls Nieto. “Since it was a colder day, I decided to burn some logs in our fire pit.”
During the next 10 minutes, Jamie Nieto would go from a young man celebrating his 20th birthday and looking forward to a promising career in golf to fighting for his life. When the fire went out, Nieto rearranged the logs and poured fuel from a can onto them. He placed the can on the ground, lit the logs and began to pick up the can when it exploded and shot burning fuel all over his body.
“My mom (Marie Nieto) heard the explosion and heard me screaming, and she ran from the front yard to the back,” recalls Nieto. “I had begun to roll on the ground, but that wasn’t putting out my face so I stood up and my whole body reignited. My mom began to dump buckets of water on me to extinguish the flames.
“As I made my way to the ambulance, my first thoughts went to golf. I wondered if I would ever be able to swing a club again as the skin was peeling off my hands. I then questioned if I was going to die and what I might look like if I didn’t.”
Nieto had sustained third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body, including extensive burns to his face. He was placed in a medically induced coma for three of the six weeks he spent at Loyola University Medical Center while doctors performed a series of surgeries, before five more weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Now 39 and the PGA Head Professional at The Preserve at Oak Meadows in Addison, Illinois, Nieto is perseverance, persistence and patience personified. He is also the 2023 recipient of the Deacon Palmer Award, which bestows special recognition on a PGA Professional who displays outstanding integrity, character and leadership while overcoming a major obstacle.
“During my rehab, I learned a lot about myself. I learned how resilient I am and how tough the people around me are,” assures Nieto, who years after his accident passed the Playing Ability Test on his first attempt. “One thing I really learned and continue to this day is the never-give-up attitude.
“The desire to overcome and not just survive but thrive after my accident is what drives me.”
The dream of one day becoming a PGA Professional remained in the back of Nieto’s mind initially. First, he had to relearn the fundamentals of walking, talking, eating and simply surviving.
“The things everyone takes for granted are what posed the biggest challenges to me,” he says, “like walking and feeding myself.
“Something that still gives me some trepidation to this day is facing the world with facial scarring. But as my wife tells me all the time, people who care look past the scars and see the person.”
Jamie Nieto, PGA
Nieto received help and encouragement from numerous PGA Professionals as he began his pursuit to become a professional himself. Steve Dunning, Frank Bruno and Rimmy Dunlop were initial supporters, and then Kevin Haracz and Mike Picciano. Now, Ed Stevenson, PGA, serves as Nieto’s mentor and boss at The Preserve. Nieto accepted the PGA Head Professional at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois, in 2013 and served for seven years. He even shot a course-record 64 during his tenure.
“Throughout my career journey, there were many days that I thought about giving up and not pursuing PGA membership or the golf business in general, but conversations with many PGA Professionals and I was back on track as they all shared a similar journey and could relate to what I was going through,” says Nieto. “I have been fortunate to have some great mentors since the first day I entered the golf business.”