DULUTH, Minn. (Aug. 30, 2012) -- The 2012 Minnesota State Senior Amateur turned into coming out party for Mark Knutson on Wednesday, as the 55-year-old senior rookie separated himself from the other contenders at Northland Country Club and won by six strokes.
(The minimum age for the U.S. Senior Open, the Champions Tour, the State Senior Open and Minnesota Public Golf Association senior events is 50, but the minimum age for the U.S. Senior Amateur and for MGA senior tournaments is 55.)
Knutson made a couple of clutch birdies on the front nine and then simply avoided the major disasters that befell his closest pursuers on the back nine. He shot a valedictory 3-over-par 74 -- one of only three final-round scores under 76 -- and posted a 54-hole total of 221.
Jon Empanger, who has won major state senior titles in each of the three seasons since he turned 55 (Senior Four-Ball in 2010, Senior Publinx in '11 and '12), was tied with Knutson after eight holes. But he went 6 over on the next four, capping off the catastrophic stretch with a 4-putt double bogey at the 12th. He wound up with an 80, which gave him a cumulative 227, and put him in a tie with Dave McCook for second place.
This is the second time that McCook had finished in the top three at the Senior Am in the last four years. He was third in 2009 at White Bear Yacht Club. In 2010, he made it to the final in the MGA Senior Players' (Match Play) Championship before losing to Colby Lund.
Like Empanger, he made a double bogey at the par-5 11th. He followed that with a three-putt bogey at the 12th, which left him six behind with as many to play.
Craig Hanson matched Knutson for the second-best score of the day with a 74, and that moved him all the way up to fourth at 228.
The best score of the final round was turned in by David Rehfelt, who shot 72. That put him at 229 and earned him a tie for fifth with former two-time champ Leif Carlson, who had a 78.
Northland's greens continued to wreak havoc with the players' psyches -- and their scores -- most notably the greens at No. 6 (367 yards, par 4) and No. 12 (176, par 3), where balls were going up to the hole, sometimes past it, and then rolling back as far as 18 feet.
It could, in rare cases, work to a player's advantage. David Kokesh, the reigning Senior Players' champion, knocked his 5-foot par putt at the 12th roughly 6 inches past the cup, but then Mr. Bridgestone retreated and fell into the cup on the return trip. (What Northland gives on one hole, it usually takes back soon thereafter. Kokesh three-putted the 16th and 17th greens, and after an encounter with the infamous right fairway bunker at the 18th hole, he made a closing double bogey, which dropped him into a tie for 17th place.)
Mostly, however, the recoil effect on the sixth and 12th greens resulted in three-putts and four-putts.
Knutson wasn't imune. He three-putted both greens.
"He was a victim of those greens, too," Empanger said. "But he didn't let that bother him, and he was solid all the way around."
Knutson had a couple of advantages going into the Senior Am.
For one thing, he's a member at Hazeltine National. So he's used to playing a really difficult golf course, and playing it well. He won not only the Senior Club Championship at Hazeltine in 2010, but also the regular Club Championship, meaning that he beat the young bombers, including former state high school champ -- and 2010 Minnesota Golf Champions runner-up -- Scott Gustafson in the process on a course that measured well over 7,000 yards.
The other thing in his favor was his familiarity with Northland.
"This is one of my favorite courses," he noted. "I've been playing in the Spooner Invitational (a four-ball tournament at Northland in September) for 20 years, and I probably made more birdies in three days this week (9) than I did in all the Spooners combined."
Because of his experience with the course, he knew that the Senior Am was not going to be a birdie-fest.
"All I wanted to do was get to a place on the green where I could two-putt from," he said. "I wasn't trying to make birdies. I did make quite a few, but as far as I was concerned, pars were fine."
He started Wednesday's round with a par at No. 1, but bogeyed the second hole. That was OK, too.
"One of my goals was to avoid double bogeys," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to avoid them completely, but I wanted to have as few as possible."
As it turned out, he had one double. It came at the 161-yard, par-3 fifth hole in the opening round on Monday. No one else in the tournament had only one Other (double bogey or worse). And Knutson got a measure of revenge on the fifth in the final round, as he made birdie there and got back to even par for the round, 5 over for the tournament.
He and Empanger -- who was also even and Plus 5 -- both hit the sixth green in regulation, and like pretty much everybody else who played the hole Wednesday, they both three-putted for bogey.
The 544-par-5 ninth was where Knutson took the lead for good. Empanger made a bogey, but Knutson hit his second shot to within a few yards of the green. His ball was sitting on a hard-pan lie, which Minnesota golfers tend not to like. But Knutson who played for the TCU golf team in the late 1970's, was undaunted. He hit a nifty little pitch to 3 feet and made the putt for a birdie -- and a two-stroke advantage.
"If you played golf in Waco, you learned how to hit shots from those lies," he said afterward. "Pretty much every shot you were hitting off the dirt. That experience definitely came in handy at No. 9."
Knutson and Empanger both bogeyed the semi-impossible, up-the-ski slope 10th hole, and then Knutson really began to pull away, as McCook, playing right in front of him, and then Empanger, playing with him, both made doubles at the 11th.
McCook three-putted the 12th for a bogey, and Knutson did the same thing.
Nevertheless, he still gained a stroke on Empanger, who described the dilema that led to his four-putt at No. 12 in his way: "You always want to stay below the hole on this course, but then if you don't get the ball all the way up to the hole, it comes right back to your feet, and you have another 15-footer for your par. Then another one for your bogey. It makes it tough."
Knutson continued to build his lead by making pars from 13 through 17, and his bogey at No. 18 was inconsequential.
"This is great," he said as he prepared to accept the trophy. "I've never been relevent in an MGA event before, except in the Four-Ball once."
Actually, that's not true. He shot the lowest score of the final round in the 1998 State Amateur at Rochester Golf & Country Club, and at age 50, he made the cut in the 2007 State Am at Hazeltine. That turned out to be something of a mixed blessing, though, because he strained his back in the final round.
The symbolism of that injury wasn't lost on him.
"After that, I decided that I wasn't going to try to take on the young guys anymore," said he winner of the 1978 Pine to Palm (when he was 21). "At least, not in the State Am. Just in club events, and even there I'm really at a disadvantage. Scotty Gustafson and Jordan Ryan, who's another good player at Hazeltine, both hit it 50 or 60 yards past me on every hole. I'm hitting rescue to the green; they're hitting 8- and 9-irons."
At Northland, Knutson, who had to be one of the leaders in Total Driving (distance plus accuracy) this week, was the one hitting the shorter clubs into the greens.
"It was great getting to play this course from 6,400 yards," he said. "I'm used to playing it from all the way back (6,800) in the Spooner. I love this course, but getting to play it a little shorter made it that much more fun."
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