Minnesota Senior: Lehman wins with big putt
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – When Jim Lehman walked up to the 17th tee box Thursday at Bearpath Golf and Country Club he trailed David Kokesh by one stroke with two holes to play in the 2013 Minnesota Golf Association Senior Amateur Championship.

When Lehman walked to the 18th tee box he held a one-stroke lead thanks to the biggest putt of the tournament. Lehman drilled a massive, 40-foot, left to right putt for birdie to take the lead and would go on to win the championship by a stroke at even par 216, as Kokesh finished at 1-over 217.

“I feel very lucky that I made that putt,” Lehman said after the victory. “I was just trying to two-putt and saw a nice line with a left to right break but I hit it really good and it went it. I don’t make a lot of long putts, so I felt like it was a miracle that it went in.”

Kokesh, Bent Creek Golf Club, played another solid round for the third consecutive day shooting even par on the front nine and looked to have the tournament well in hand making birdie on the first two holes of the back nine, taking a four-stroke lead over Lehman.

“I had one bad shot on three where I blocked it right and made bogey,” Kokesh said. “I came back with a birdie on six and seven and then bogeyed eight. I was hitting the ball great until the 15th hole.”

On the 15th tee Kokesh began to unravel as his usual fade did not turn over and instead went far right, landing out of bounds. He would end up making double-bogey on the hole and his lead was cut to one as he sat at 1-under.

Both Lehman and Kokesh missed the green on the 16th and made bogey as Kokesh’s lead remained at one. On the 17th Kokesh again found trouble as his tee shot found the left fairway bunker and nuzzled close to the front lip. His only play was to pop the ball out in the middle of the fairway and play for par.

Lehman’s tee shot also found the bunker but he had a much better chance to reach the green in regulation and put his approach on the front edge of the green leaving himself with a long, uphill putt. Kokesh’s third shot stopped 11 feet from the pin where he just missed his par putt and tapped in for bogey.

Lehman stepped up and buried his birdie putt as he dropped his putter and threw his hands skyward.

“I was still in it going to 18," Kokesh said. "[Lehman] was playing well too and I tried to keep up with him and make par on the last couple of holes. On 17 I hooked a 3-wood too much and he made a great putt and that made the difference.”

On the final hole Lehman, Windsong Farm, put a hybrid right down the middle of the fairway and was left with 130-yards to the pin. With his tee shot in the fairway, 25-yards behind Lehman, Kokesh hit his approach that hit the green and spun back to the pin, five feet away for birdie.

“I had 152-yards to the pin and it was an easy, smooth 8-iron. I wasn’t going at the pin, I was going to the right side and I usually draw the ball and when I hit it I knew it was going to be pretty good,” Kokesh said.

With pressure squarely back on his shoulders, Lehman hit his approach to the front edge of the green and was left with a 20-foot putt for birdie. Lehman’s birdie putt came up six inches short and he tapped in for par as Kokesh had one final chance to even the tournament and force a playoff. His birdie putt slid just wide to the right and Lehman clinched the championship with a final round 1-over par 73 (216).

“The whole day I hit a lot of good shots and it was the same type of golf I’ve played for the last couple of days. I didn’t have many mistakes and I made enough birdies to hang in there,” Lehman said.

While Lehman was unaware of how the groups in front of him had fared, he knew he was ahead of Kokesh and potentially leading the tournament.

“On 18 I hit a hybrid off the tee and couldn’t believe how far it went. I only had 128-yards left to the hole—that thing went 270-yards or so. Dave hit a great shot and I couldn’t believe that he stuffed it in there to about five feet,” Lehman said.

“I tried to be aggressive, not too aggressive and miss left, but I hit a good, solid wedge in to about 15 feet and actually thought that I made the putt but it stopped about six-inches short in the middle of the hole,” he said.

Lehman, a former president of the MGA, admitted that his expectations weren’t particularly high coming into the week as his sights are set on the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship he qualified for in July. He said he’s been using the last few tournaments as preparation before heading to South Carolina.

“I've really had a good year this year. I won a big senior event in Florida in March; I finished second in a senior event in Scottsdale; and I finished fifth in another event in Florida and I was Low-Senior in the State Amateur,” Lehman said.

“I’ve worked really hard on my game—golf is a huge passion of mine. So to win this event means the world to me and I couldn’t be more thrilled,” he said.

After the second-place finish Thursday Kokesh remained optimistic about his chances in the future.

“I’m not too disappointed—I played really well this week. It’s the third time I’ve finished second, it’ll happen sometime,” Kokesh said.

In 2010 Kokesh finished a stroke behind champion Leif Carlson at the Minikahda Club and fell one stroke short again in 2011 when he lost to Steve Whittaker at St. Cloud Country Club. Kokesh finished tied for 17th a year ago when the tournament was played at Northland Country Club.

Joseph Eichten, Stillwater Country Club, carded a final round 70 to finish the tournament in third place at 2-over par 218.

Eichten had a great start to the round making three birdies with just one bogey on the opening nine holes to make the turn at 2-under par. He made a bogey on the 13th to drop to 1-under for the day but finished strong with birdie on the final hole.

“I had a nice up and down on the first hole and the third hole to save par which was huge, that gave me some confidence and I made a couple of birdies on three and four,” Eichten said. “I think the back nine here is a little tougher, especially the 10th hole. I made a solid par there, made bogey on 14 but I hit a wedge into 18 to about ten feet and made birdie,” he said.

In his first year as a senior player Eichten said he’s very happy with where his game is at and is happy to finish near the top of the leaderboard.

“After the round today I figured I could work my way into the top five which was my goal. I gave it all I had, but I knew the other guys are good players and they would post some good scores,” he said.

Whittaker, the 2011 champion, finished in fourth place at 3-over par 219, while last year’s winner, Mark Knutson, finished in a tie for fifth place at 4-over par 220.

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