Birchmont: Family, friends keep the regulars coming back
For Rick Passolt of Edina and Curt Howard of Salpulpa, Okla., the Birchmont is more than a golf tournament.
"I spent all of my summers here and when I was 12 years old my grandfather, Tams Bixby, started me in the Birchmont," Howard said. "This is where I call home. My dearest friends aren't in Texas and they aren't in Oklahoma. My dearest friends are in Bemidji."
Passolt also returns each year to the Birchmont because of the friendships he has developed and Tuesday following his Executive Championship round he told his sons that next summer would be the year that they begin their Birchmont careers.
Both golfers also have parlayed their Birchmont experience into match-play success. Passolt is the defending Executive champion and he also can claim Men's Championship crowns in 2003 and 2005.
Howard has three Executive trophies on his mantle as he topped the field in 1997, 1998 and 2005.
After two days of Birchmont qualifying both golfers gave notice that they will be in the thick of the title chase. Passolt, who automatically earned the top seed by virtue of his defending champion status, shot 73-76-149 in two practice rounds.
Had the 149 been carded in competition rather than practice, Passolt would have been the Executive medalist. That honor, however, went to Howard who shot 75-75-150.
"I'm thrilled to be the medalist," Howard said. "At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to be the medalist and I accomplished that. One of the reasons I wanted to be the medalist is that I would be in the opposite bracket from Rick.
"Rick's just a better golfer than I am," Howard, who is playing in his 34th Birchmont, said.
The two will own the top two seeds when the 16 Executives who qualified begin their match-play at 7:48 a.m. today today. Passolt will tangle with Ryan Maher of Bemidji (162) while Howard drew Dale Finck of Bertha (162).
"I enjoyed the two practice rounds because I haven't played much golf this year and I needed to play without any pressure," Passolt said. "By not worrying about qualifying I was able to get loose and get comfortable with my game and the course. It's fun to be up here but it takes me a couple of rounds to get comfortable."
Passolt said that the key to successfully defending his title is to compensate for his lack of distance by keeping the ball on the fairways and making some putts.
"Last year I was patient on the golf course and played the tournament one hole at a time," he said. "I plan to do that again this week."
Previous champions face a different type of pressure than others in the field, according to Howard.
"You have to play well every day. Everyone wants to beat you because you've won it before," Howard said. "You have a target on your back and having to face someone with nothing to lose every day in match-play wears on you. You have to grind, grind and grind to survive.
"But it's worth it coming to Bemidji," Howard continued. "This is my favorite event of the year."
The Executive field saw 10 golfers break 160. Miles Schacher of Hawley and Pete Passolt of Minneapolis each shot 154 while Todd Schaefer of Grand Forks finished at 157.
The group at 158 included Troy Haluptzok of Bemidji, Scott Woods of Alexandria and Tim Gruidl of Edina while Joe Burgess of Woodbury, Scott Hinners of Bemidji and Kevin Kircher of Bagley each shot 159.
Although the number of entrants was way down the quality of the golf was up. Only eight women registered for the Championship flight and leading the group was defending champion Rachel Roller of Fargo.
A pair of golfers, Cydney Hasselberg of Staples and Ali Nelson of Moorhead, shot 75 in Tuesday's qualifying round. Missy Taberry of Wadena carded a 77.
They will hold the four top seeds for match-play which begins at 1:15 p.m. today. Completing the field are Michelle Reiners of Minnetonka (83), Shelby Sauer of Bemidji (84), Emily Israelson of Staples (89) and Tracy Gustafson of Wadena (92).
Bryant Barnes is the defending Super Senior champion and owns the top seed but the favorite may be Jim Archer of Prairie Village, Ks.
Archer shot 73 in Tuesday's qualifying round to earn medalist honors while Barnes carded an 80 in his practice round.
Archer was one of six Super Seniors to break 80 and joining him were Jim Trapp of Tuscon, Ariz. (77), Tom Hanson of Detroit Lakes (78), Jim Nelson of Houston, Texas (79), Ed LeBeau of Bemidji (79) and Bil Enghauser of Bemidji (79).
The Super Seniors begin their 16-player match-play tournament at 1:33 p.m. today.