In Minnesota, Empanger & Johnson record dramatic win

WACONIA, MN (Sept. 28, 2010) -- The Senior Four-Ball Championship this week was the final tournament of the 2010 MGA season, and Jon Empanger provided what was probably the most dramatic finish to the tournament/season in the 110-year history of the organization.

Having been frustrated by his inability to make a putt all day Tuesday (and Monday, for that matter), the 55-year-old first-year senior solved the problem by holing a 114-yard wedge shot on the 18th hole at Island View Golf Club -- and with that, he had partner Gary Johnson won the championship.

Empanger's eagle 2 at the 402-yard finishing hole was the 67th stroke of the day for their team. The closing 67 matched their opening round -- but not for drama -- and gave them a 36-hole total of 134 and a two-stroke victory.

Making the triumph even sweeter was the fact that Island View is the home course for both Johnson and Empanger.

"I guess you couldn't ask for any more than that," Empanger said.

It was his first victory in a state championship, although he's come close before, most notably with a couple of third-place finishes in the State Senior Open.

For the 63-year-old Johnson, it completed a kind of senior triple crown. He has now won a stroke play title (the State Senior Publinx), a match play (the MGA Senior Players' Championship), and now a four-ball crown.

Johnson also qualified for the U.S. Senior Amateur last year, two months after winning his Senior Players' title. The combination of those two accomplishments made him the 2009 MGA Senior Player of the Year.

There was a four-way tie for second place at Island View, all four teams finishing at 136.

Terry Moores and Gary Huber got into the group home for runners-up by birdying the last two holes on Tuesday and polishing off their second 68 in a row. They were joined, presently, by three of the teams that had started the day in a five-way tie for first.

Steve Whittaker, this year's MGA Senior Player of the Year, and Ray Sauer were one of those teams that had shot 67's on Day 1. Playing with Empanger and Johnson in the final round, Whittaker and Sauer both burned the edge of the cup with putts at the 18th and had to settle for pars, and a 69.

Then came the teams of Larry Barnacle and Tom Smith, and Rick Ehrmanntraut and Rob Wight, both teams playing in the last group of the day. Although they didn't know it at the time, both teams needed 2's at the 18th hole to tie for first, but both made pars. So both ended up with matching 69's, and 136's.

As it turned out, had Empanger made a par, instead of his improbable eagle 2, there would have been a massive five-way tie for first place -- and a playoff that would have started no more than about 15 minutes before sundown. So the MGA would like to thank him for rendering that unnecessary and bringing the tournament to a timely conclusion.

Right behind the mob in second place, there was a two-way tie for sixth, between the teams of Tim Gonsior and 67-year-old Dick Blooston (who won his first MGA title 46 years ago, in the 1964 State Four-Ball Championship), and Scott Jensen and Larry Keithan.

Gonsior and Blooston followed a 69 with a 68 on their way to 137. Jensen and Keithan matched Johnson and Empanger for low score of the second day with a 67.

There was one other 67 on Tuesday, by Jim Strandemo and Pat Vincelli. They finished alone in eighth place at 138.

Empanger and Johnson actually trailed Barnacle and Smith, the 2008 Senior Four-Ball champs, by one stroke as they teed off at No. 18.

Johnson had made three birdies -- he hit a wedge shot to 7 feet at the par-5 first and converted the putt, two-putted for birdie at the third, another par-5, and hit a wedge to 5 feet at the 12th for his third birdie -- and unlike all of the other contending teams, Empanger and Johnson made no bogeys on Tuesday.

"We ham-and-egged it pretty good," Johnson said. "We were both in trouble on a couple of holes, but never both on the same hole. I don't think we really came close to making a bogey."

Nevertheless, at Minus 3 for the day and Minus 8 for the tournament, they were one down to Barnacle and Smith, who were teeing off at the par-5 17th, and were Minus 4 for the day, Minus 9 for the tournament.

Empanger hit a perfect drive a the 18th, right down the middle, about 290 yards. Johnson's drive was nearly the same distance but found the bunker that pinches the left side of the fairway. From there, he caught the sand before the ball on his second shot, and came up well short of the green.

The approach to the 18th green at Island View is severely uphill, which meant that even though he was 114 yards from the pin and he normally hits his pitching wedge 120 to 125 yards, Empanger had to hit a full wedge shot on Tuesday.

There were probably seven or eight people standing around in front of the clubhouse, talking and distractedly watching as Empanger, Johnson, Whittaker and Sauer all hit their second shots -- and none of those seven or eight people saw Empanger's ball go in the hole.

From down below, Empanger couldn't see it either.

"There two guys who saw it go in," noted Dan Callihan, the Island View head professional, "and they were both sitting in the bar, looking out the window."

Consequently, no one said anything to Empanger as he climbed the hill, and he didn't know that he had made the eagle until he looked in the cup. He then signaled to Johnson, who delightedly picked up his ball.

Whittaker and Sauer had begun the hole tied with Empanger and Johnson, Minus 3 for the day, Minus 8 for the tournament. Now their birdie putts were substantially diminished in importance.

Sauer's 35-footer was an extremely difficult putt, but it looked as if it were going in all the way, until it veered off in the last 6 inches and grazed the edge of the hole. Whittaker followed from 30 feet, and hit an almost identical putt.

"We did that a lot today," said Whittaker, who started his 2010 tournament season by winning the State Senior Open and will be concluding it later this month by playing in the U.S. Senior Amateur in Fla. (at Lake Nona). "We hit great putts, but we really didn't make anything."

Empanger and Johnson were singing a similar lament -- until the last hole.

"I putted really well yesterday," Empanger said. "I was hitting my putts right where I wanted them, and they looked like they were going in, but then they'd roll right over the edge of the cup. After a while, the cup started looking smaller and smaller."

"Even though we shot 67 yesterday," Johnson added, "we could have been three or four lower without too much trouble. Jon just couldn't get anything to fall. Today was more of the same. He had chances, and he didn't make a single birdie. But I guess the eagle sort of makes up for that, doesn't it?"

As Empanger and Johnson were playing the 18th hole in spectacular fashion, Barnadle and Smith were making a hash of things at the 17th, a par-5 that Smith had birdied on Monday. But on Tuesday, they didn't come close to making birdie, or par, and wound up with a 6.

By the time Barnacle tapped in for his two-putt bogey there, he and his partner had gone from having a one-shot lead on the tee to trailing by two.

It was basically the reverse of what happened in 2008, when Smith holed out a 100-yard wedge shot for an eagle 3 on the 17th hole at Town & Country Club during the final round on their way to victory. Of course, they also made a double-bogey on the next hole, the par-3 18th at T&C, but still managed to win by one anyway.

Their 67 on Monday didn't have those kinds of twists and turns. They made five birdies and no bogeys.

Tuesday was a different matter, however, as they made six birdies and three bogeys.

Both the Barnacle/Smith team and the Ehrmanntraut/White team got off off fast starts with birdies at the first hole. White conjured up the first of his two chip-ins there, although Ehrmanntraut was getting ready to putt for eagle from 25 feet at the time.

Ehrmanntraut and White then birdied the par-4 second and took a two-stroke lead over Barnacle and Smith, who bogeyed the second.

The Ehrmanntraut/White team, which was part of a tie for second place behind Barnacle and Smith two years ago, also birdied the fourth. But Smith and Barnacle were just starting to heat up. They birdied the fifth, the seventh and the eighth.

"For a while there, our group had 30-foot putts going in from all over the place," Wight said.

"Then the putts stopped going in for us," Ehrmanntraut said, "and things got a lot tougher."

Smith and Barnacle got to 4 under for the day with a birdie at the 10th, only to slip back to 3 under with a bogey at the 11th, and then get back to 4 under (9 under for the tournament) once again when Smith chipped in for a birdie at the 12th.

That turned out to be their last birdie of the day.

Wight/Ehrmanntraut moved to within one of Barnacle/Smith -- and got to minus 8 for the tournament -- when Wight chipped in again at the par-3 16th.

"That's just Rob Wight being Rob Wight," Callahan marvelled. "He was doing that to guys when he was playing high school matches in St. Paul 40 years ago, and he's still doing it."

Wight also came up with the most interesting route to the 18th green. His second shot was a kind of thin hook that went through a tree, caromed off the cart path, skipped through 20 yards of rough (defying the laws of physics in the process) and kicked dead right -- out of the rough and onto the green.

"Rob Wight," chuckled Callahan, as the Island View head pro looked on.

"We were getting a little nervous, watching that," Empanger admitted. "The ball was doing so many weird things just to get on the green, and it just kept rolling."

It was almost as if someone were using magnets or some kind of mystical force to make it go toward the hole. And for just a couple of seconds, all of the witnesses standing behind the green, including Empanger and Johnson, had the same thought: "This ball couldn't go in, could it?"


The Rob Wight Miracle Flight at No. 18 eventually came to rest 15 feet to the left of the cup, and the magic of the second shot didn't carry over to the birdie putt, which he missed. Wight and Ehrmanntraut both two-putted for their pars, and their share of second place.

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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