Minnesota Sr Am: Carlson never trails

WAYZATA, Minn. (Aug. 27, 2008)--Insurmountable leads in golf are like unicorns, mythical creatures that don't really exist.

That was demonstrated once again Wednesday afternoon at Woodhill Country Club, where Leif Carlson was playing his best golf in years and was eight shots ahead with 15 holes remaining in the MGA Senior Amateur Championship.

It should have been a cakewalk to the clubhouse from there, and an easy victory. Eventually, it was a victory, but it definitely wasn't an easy one.

Ten holes after Carlson grabbed the eight-shot lead with a birdie at the par-5 third, five of those shots he had to play with were gone, and a sixth was in jeopardy, after Don Pyykola performed his sixth or seventh short-game magic trick of the day: a pitch-in for a birdie at the 210-yard 13th hole.

Carlson responded with a delicate, sidehill, downhill chip that finished within 8 inches of the cup and enabled him to save par. Basically, that was where he won the tournament.

The 55-year-old rookie senior from Hastings Country Club went on from there to play the last five holes in even par, for a closing 76 and a 54-hole total of 221 (8 over par) -- and claim a four-stroke victory over Pyykola and Dennis Barr.

It was the fourth state title for Carlson, who won the State Publinks in 1991 and combined with Mark Boetcher to win the State Four-Ball Championship twice ('94, '97).

Pyykola started the day by making a 50-footer for birdie at the first hole, and that set the tone for his round.

"I struggled with my driver all day," he said. "But I managed to make a lot of pars, and even a couple of birdies from places where you don't necessarily expect to make birdies."

Among other things, he made a miracle par at the ninth, despite hitting two shots into the trees on that hole; and he played the back nine on a very difficult Woodhill course in level par -- even though he hit only two greens in regulation.

He wound up with a very resourceful 73, and a 225 for the tournament.

Afterward, Pyykola was asked if pitching, chipping and putting were the strengths of his game.

"My short game is pretty good, I guess," he said.

"Pretty good?" his caddie, Chuck Johnson, chimed in. "Don's got the best short game I've ever seen. I've been playing with him for 30 years, and he can get it up and down from anywhere."

Anyone who watched him play Wednesday would be willing to attest to that.

Barr arrived at his 225 by a slightly different route. He hit 14 greens in the final round, made three birdies and three bogeys, and shot the low score of the tournament, a 71.

His bogeys came on two three-putts, one of them from inside 15 feet, and a missed 3-footer for par. But that was just the price of doing business this week at Woodhill, where the treacherous greens defeated just about everyone in the field, with the possible exception of Pyykola.

"On both of the three-putts and the little one that I missed," Barr said, "I hit good putts. They just hit the edges and lipped out. That stuff happened to everybody, and that's why I'm thrilled to have been able to shoot a 71."

Barr noted that the final Senior Am standings represented a near-sweep for the Hiawatha Men's Club and it's alumni association, because three of the top four finishers had Hiawatha connections.

Carlson was a member at the venerable Minneapolis public course for eight years in the 1970's, before he did a short stretch as an assistant professional (and before regaining his amateur status).

Barr, who now plays out of Brackett's Crossing, is another former member of the club, and E. David Johnson, who concluded his final round 3-3-3-3 to shoot 74 and finish in fourth place (at 227), is currently a member in good standing at Hiawatha -- and has been for more than four decades.

Johnson's round nearly came undone in the middle, as he went double-bogey-par-double for No. 8 to No. 11. Like almost everyone else in the field, he was having trouble getting putts to the hole, because the greens were slower Wednesday as a result of heavy rains. But he made 10-footer for par at No. 12, and that seemed to turn things around for him.

"I'm not sure where that finish came from," he admitted. "But I can tell you this: I never stopped trying. I was playing as hard as I could all the way around."

Dave Rovik, a former two-time State Senior Am champion (1994 and '99), closed with a 75 for 229 and fifth place. Pat Vincelli matched Rovick's 75 and ended up one stroke behind him, at 230, in sixth.

Carlson took control of this year's Senior Am on Day 1, shooting a 72 and grabbing a one-stroke lead. On Day 2, he shot 73, but all the other players near the lead did worse, and his advantage grew to seven.

There were two rain delays Wednesday, totaling 2 hours and 45 minutes, but what was more significant to the tournament than the time lost was the effect the rain had on the Woodhill greens, which had been perilously quick for the first two days.

The rain slowed them down, and everyone knew they were slower -- but no one really wanted hit their putts all that much harder. Everyone in the field had seen putts go right off the greens in the first two rounds, and those memories prevented most of the 30 players who made the cut from getting to rambunctious with their putts in the third round.

"I never got a downhill putt to the hole all day," Carlson complained. "For the first two days, my speed control was marvelous. Today, I just didn't dare hit it as hard as I needed to. I knew they were slower, but I also knew that if I hit one of those downhill putts 2 feet past the hole, it was gone."

That ambivilance on the greens was almost like a cancer, and it started eating away at his lead, as he made bogeys at the fourth and fifth holes.

The conditions seemed to be messing with Carlson's mind again at the 339-yard seventh hole, where he hit a wedge shot onto the very back of the green, within 2 feet of the back fringe, only to see it pull back all the way off the green.

He didn't save par there, and he bogeyed the 214-yard, par-3 eighth, as well.

Carlson had a chance for birdie from about 12 feet at the ninth, but once again he left the putt short.

Meanwhile, Pyykola, who was 2 over for the day, was making a heroic par.

"I hit a 3-wood off the tee, but caught the trees on the right," he said. "That left me with 210 into the green, around some of the trees. I was trying to hit a low, cutting 3-wood, but I got it up too high, and hit the trees again. So now I was 173 yards, hitting my third shot."

He hit that one 5 feet right of the hole and made the putt for par.

So as they made the turn, Carlson was still six ahead of Pyykola, and seven ahead of Barr, who was playing two groups ahead.

At No. 10, Carlson had a 90-yard second shot into the green, which has a slope comparable to a San Francisco street, especially in the back. Remembering what happened at No. 7, he hit a lob wedge 30 feet past the pin, right to where the slope of the green was the steepest -- and the ball stayed there.

"I couldn't believe that," he said later.

Still afraid of the slope, Carlson left his first putt about 5 feet short of the hole, and then missed the putt for par. He also bogeyed the 11th, a result of a pulled second shot, a weak chip and yet another missed putt in the 4- to 8-foot range.

Pyykola was also left of the green at the 11th, but he chipped to 6 inches for another ho-hum par -- and now the lead was four. Not nearly so insurmountable-looking.

The 12th is a par-5, and Pyykola nearly made a 65-footer for birdie from about 3 feet off the green. Carlson burned the edge of the cup from just inside 10 feet.

Both players agreed that 13 was the pivotal hole.

Pyykola pulled his tee shot, and yelled: "Don't hit that tree again today," which it didn't. It ended up 20 yards short of the green, though, and in thick, gnarly rough.

Carlson hit a rescue that was just a few feet too far to the left. He was 25 feet from the hole, with a dicey little chip from there. It appeared that he might get one of the lost strokes from his lead back -- and then Pyykola knocked his birdie chip -- it was really a pitch -- into the hole.

Up to that point, the two Purple Hawk buddies -- Pyykola and his caddie Johnson -- hadn't really been thinking about winning the tournament.

"But right after I made the birdie from off the green at 13," Pyykola said. "I thought I might have a chance. Leif had a pretty tough chip from over on the left fringe, and I was thinking that if he didn't get it up and down for par, he might begin to feel some pressure."

Carlson did get it up and down, though, and after barely escaping the wilderness area to the left of the Woodhill's 14th hole with a hooked second shot, he made another par there. Pyykola's short game failed him at No. 14, for about the only time all day, and he three-putted from the front fringe for a bogey 6.

"When Leif made his par at 13, and then I messed up and bogeyed 14, that was it," Pyykola said. "That pretty much sealed it for Leif."

Up ahead, Barr was making a birdie 2 at the 16th, and that put him in a tie with Pyykola for second. It appeared that Pyykola might fall out of the tie at the 15th, where he popped up his tee shot, pulled his second and was faced with an 18-footer for par. But he made it, and parred out from there.

Carlson missed the 17th green to the right, and left his 8-foot par putt about an inch short.

"When it came off my putter, I thought that was a great putt," he said. "Then I started to think: 'I couldn't have left another one short, could I?' But it was the same problem. If I'd hit that putt 2 feet past the cup, it would have been gone."

The bogey didn't really matter, because Carlson still had a three-stroke lead, and he got the lost shot back with a 3-foot birdie putt at No. 18.

"I thought the most important shot I hit all day was the chip at No. 13," Carlson said. "From the tee, it looked like an uphill chip. But it wasn't. It was downhill. My lead was already down to four by then. When he hit his tee shot through that tree, I was thinking I might gain a stroke. Then I find out my shot is tougher than I think, and he makes the birdie. If I had made bogey there, the lead would have been two, and things could have gotten really tense. So I was pretty happy when I got that chip to within a few inches. I thought I could probably handle things from there."

--Courtesy MGA

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