Minn. Senior 4-Ball: A wild win

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Sept. 16, 2008) -- Tuesday was the best of days and the worst of days for Larry Barnacle and Tom Smith, both in a span of about 20 minutes. The worst part was extended for about an hour, but then things worked out well in the end.

Having started the final round of the MGA Senior Four-Ball Championship five strokes behind the first-day leaders (Jerry Gruidl and Bob Leaf), the Smith-Barney partnership went out and made eight birdies and one bogey in the first 16 holes at Town & Country Club.

That was pretty sporty on a course where no one had done any better than 68 in Monday's opening round, and their round got even better -- actually, it became fairly spectacular -- when Barnacle holed a wedge shot for an eagle at the par-5 17th hole.

Suddenly, they were 9 under par, and in an excellent position to win the tournament.

Then, just as suddenly, they made a double bogey at the 154-yard, par-3 18th to conclude the round.

It wasn't quite Jean Vande Velde kicking away the British Open at Carnoustie in 1999. But it had the feel of Arnold Palmer making that double bogey on the 72nd hole of the Masters and giving the Green Jacket away to Gary Player. (Smith and Barnacle, both 60, are old enough to remember that 1961 Masters tragedy.)

So they signed for their 65 (rarely has a Four-Ball team looked more demoralized in an MGA scorer's tent after finishing a round 7 under par), which gave them a 36-hole aggregate of 138 and the lead in the clubhouse -- and then they waited.

It was a long, agonizing wait, because they had teed off exactly 60 minutes ahead of the leaders, which meant the wait was going to be at least an hour; and in that situation it's virtually impossible not to keep going back to the 18th hole disaster and replaying it in your head, over and over and over and over. . . .

"When we were on the 18th tee, we thought we might win," Barnacle said later. "Then when we made that double, we thought we'd lost it. That we'd kicked it away."

"And that would have been a tough thing to get over," Smith added.

But as it turned out, they won anyway.

Smith and Barnacle dodged one bullet right away, just a few minutes after they finished, when Rob Wight and Rick Ehrmanntraut completed their round with a 67, and posted a 139.

Wight and Ehrmanntraut, who combined for a second-place finish in the regular MGA Four-Ball a decade ago (going into the more distant past, Ehrmanntraut won the 1973 Four-Ball with John Harris), could very easily have finished one stroke lower Tuesday, because Wight, who had already made four birdies in 17 holes, had a 7-footer for his fifth at the 18th hole.

"I hit an absolutely horrible putt," Wight confessed, allocating more blame to himself than he deserved (the 18th green and T&C is tricky, and three-putts from inside 15 feet were not uncommon this week). "That putt never had a chance, and I ended up having to make a fairly nasty little 2-footer for my par."

There was another close call for Smith and Barnacle a few minutes after that. Marshall Nowlin and Tom Ryan, playing in the group right behind Wight and Ehrmanntraut, shot a 69, which put them at 140, two strokes behind.

Still leading, Smith and Barnacle breathed another sigh of relief, and continued their vigil. As the minutes ticked off, however, it started to become apparent that the course was winning most of the battles, and after Nowlin and Ryan finished, there were no more scores in the 60's.

Eventually, there was only one group left with a chance to win the championship. That was the one with the defending champions, Gruidl and Leaf, who shot 68 on Monday, and the only other team to have broken 70 in the first round, Gene Parr and Dennis Kowalski, who had posted a 69.

Actually, the Parr-Kowaslki team had run into difficulties early, and they ended up with a 76. That gave them a 145 and relegated them to a tie for 11th.

Surprisingly, Gruidl and Leaf, who were trying for their sixth Senior Four-Ball title together, could do no better than a 72, which put them at 140, tied with Nowlin and Ryan for third place.

"It was unbelievable," said a frustrated Leaf. "Four-Ball is a momentum game, and we just never got going. We made three birdies, but we made three bogeys, too. And when we were coming down the stretch, and we really needed to make more birdies, we couldn't make a 6-footer."

"We lipped out five putts," Gruidl lamented. "Bob missed one from 4 feet. I missed one from 3 feet. We're usually pretty good at hamming and egging it, but not today."

Randy Garber, the 2007 MGA Senior Player of the Year, and Pat Vincelli claimed fifth place, with a 141 (71-70), and the combination of Brian Love and Jeff Evenson was sixth at 142 (71-71).

Former State Publinks champ Bill Homeyer and Tim Gonsior were the only other team under par. They finished at 143 (71-72), which was good for seventh place.

For Barnacle, a two-time Senior Player of the Year, and Smith, who was the Senior Player of the Year in 2005, this was their first Senior Four-Ball victory, although they had been close before.

In each of the past two years, they finished third, and Smith combined with the late John Christopherson to finish second in 2005, a little less than six months before Christopherson died of cancer.

"It's been a lot of close-but-no-cigar until this year," Smith said. "It's nice to finally win it."

Even though they were five strokes behind at the start of the day, in a three-way tie for 14th place, Smith and Barnacle still thought they could win.

"We knew it would take a low score," Smith conceded. "Although we never talked about it, we were both thinking we might need something as low as 62."

That would mean making birdies early and often, and Smith got the first one at the par-3 third hole.

On Monday, the par-5 fourth hole was nearly the undoing of the eventual winners. Barnacle was out of the it right away, after hitting a rare wild drive and losing the ball. Smith, having hit his tee shot into an awkward lie (which required him to use something like a baseball swing), "half-shanked" his second shot into the fairway bunker on the seventh hole, gauged the ball out of the bunker to within about 100 yards of the fourth green, hit the next shot "a little thick," stubbed a chip, and ended up having to make a 15-footer for a bogey.

Things went much better for the boys on Tuesday, as Barnacle hit a more typical drive, ripping it right down the middle of the fairway, just missed the green with his second and chipped to within a foot of the cup for an stress-free birdie.

A wedge to 12 feet at the fifth hole produced another Barnacle birdie. Both nearly birdied the blind, uphill, 468-yard, par-4 sixth (Smith lipped out a bunker shot, and Barnacle burned the edge with a 12-foot putt), but Smith made up for that by draining a 35-footer at the seventh.

Barnacle hit it close at No. 8 and made the putt to give the team its fifth birdie in a six-hole stretch.

Not only did Barnacle and Smith throw a double bogey into their 65 on Tuesday, but they also had a bogey at the 10th. They retrieved that lost stroke two holes later, when Smith hit two bombs to within a few feet of the green at the 533-yard, par-5 12th and chipped close for another easy birdie.

Barnacle, who is considered one of the best drivers -- if not the best -- in Minnesota senior golf but is not considered to be a great putter, managed to make a 15-footer for birdie at the 14th hole.

Although both were close to the green in two at the 15th, the first of T&C's three consecutive par-5's, neither of them was able to get up and down for a birdie. At the 16th Smith was chipping for eagle again, and nearly made it, leaving himself a 2-inch birdie putt.

Both Barnacle and Smith hit less than great drives at the 17th; so both laid up to 100 yards, and it was from there that Barnacle jarred his next shot for an eagle.

"Larry hit the shot, and I saw it land," Smith said. "Then I didn't see it any more."

The 18th was easier on Tuesday than it was Monday, with the tees up 20 yards from where they had been. But the wind fooled a lot of players, including Smith and Barnacle.

"We both hit 7-irons," Barnacle said, "and we both went long and left."

"I guess we should have hit 8's," Smith suggested. "That's what I hit on 3, which was the exact same yardage as 18. There are some places on this course where you just don't want to be, and we found two of them at 18. We would have been better off just fatting a couple of tee shots somewhere around the front of the green. At least we would have been able to make a bogey from there."

"Well, we played the last two holes in even par," Barnacle pointed out as he and Smith accepted their trophies at the presentation ceremony. "It was just that we did it by going 3-5, instead of 5-3."

Ultimately, the double didn't matter, and with the Senior Four-Ball victory, Smith and Barnacle collected 65 MGA Player Points each. Smith started the week with 5 points; so he now has 70.

Barnacle, on the other hand, came into the tournament with 165 points, and the lead in the race for Senior Player of the Year. With the additional 65 for winning at T&C, he has 230 points, and has locked up his third Senior Player of the Year Award, and continued his pattern of winning the award every other year: 2004, '06 and '08.

His closest pursuers are Senior Am champ Leif Carlson and Pat Vincelli, with 145 points each. They could collect another 50 points, potentially, by finishing as low senior in the State Mid-Amateur Championship next week, but they can't catch Barnacle.

For his part, Barnacle, who earlier this year won the MGA Senior Players (Match Play) Championship, could add a lot of points to his total at the U.S. Senior Amateur, beginning Saturday at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

--MGA photo

ABOUT THE Minnesota Senior Four-Ball

In 1974, the MGA Senior Four-Ball became the state's second senior event. 36-hole four-ball stroke play tournament with Senior (ages 55 to 64) and Masters (ages 65 and over) Divisions. The MGA awards prizes for low gross and low net scores in both Senior and Masters Divisions.

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