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Tom Jenkins blasts out of a bunker on No. 18 Saturday in the Birchmont championship match. Jenkins got up and down for par to claim a 1-up victory over Tim Skarperud. At right is his caddie, Joel Conway. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

Home-grown champ: Jenkins realizes dream of winning Birchmont crown

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After years of dreaming and close calls, Tom Jenkins returned home and rose to the pinnacle of Bemidji golf Saturday afternoon at Bemidji Town & Country Club.

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Jenkins defeated Tim Skarperud of Grand Forks, N.D., 1 up to win The 85th Birchmont men's championship and in the process washed away memories of runner-up finishes to David Schultz in 2001 and 2002.

"This just feels fantastic," said Jenkins, who currently resides in Maple Grove. "This is the one tournament you gear your game up for every summer and I've played well in the past. Those losses were tough to take being the guy from town in this tournament. It feels great to finally pull through with everyone coming out here for you and wanting you to win."

Jenkins, a 1997 Bemidji High School graduate and Bemidji State University graduate, was followed by a gallery of about 75 in a championship match that saw four lead changes and went down to the 18th hole.

Jenkins rallied late and took lead for good with a birdie on the 16th hole. He survived the final two holes with a touch of luck and a clutch bunker shot.

The luck came on the 17th green when Skarperud narrowly missed a 40-foot birdie putt that would have evened the match.

On No. 18, with Skarperud sitting on the front of the green in two shots, Jenkins made the long walk to his ball in the greenside bunker knowing a major challenge awaited.

Jenkins proudly claims he's played "hundreds and hundreds" of rounds at Bemidji Town & Country Club since he first started playing there at the age of 14.

So he knows when he's in trouble.

"I was walking up to that shot and telling my caddie Joel (Conway) that this is the worst spot I could possibly be," Jenkins said. "Everybody who plays out here knows that you don't put it in the left bunker. I've done it before and have been everywhere - I've hit it in the flower bed, on top of the hill on the first tee and sometimes I've never even gotten it out of the bunker."

But this time Jenkins was presented a favorable lie and softly dropped the bunker shot 10 feet from the pin.

Skarperud settled for a two-putt par, meaning Jenkins needed to make the putt to win the championship and avoid extra holes.

As softly as he stroked the bunker shot, Jenkins rolled the ball down the crest of the green and drained the putt to the hometown gallery's delight.

"I know this is cliché but all those years growing up here I've been on that green standing over a 10-foot putt thinking I'd have to make it to win the Birchmont and there I was," Jenkins said.

Playing in his first Birchmont since 2006, Jenkins became the first Bemidji native to win the men's title since Bob Brink in 2004. He's only the sixth native Bemidjian to win The Birchmont since it began in 1926.

"Growing up it was always about The Birchmont," Jenkins said. "When I think about The Birchmont I think of guys like Russ Simenson and Bill Israelson."

Simenson won three straight titles from 1987-89 and is one of two players in tournament history to accomplish that feat. Isrealson, the 1973 and 1979 champion, eventually played on the PGA Tour and was recently elected to the Minnesota Golf Association Hall of Fame.

Jenkins is a three-time Bemidji Town & Country Club Vandersluis tournament winner. He also plays annually in the top amateur tournaments in Minnesota and finished tied for 14th at the state amateur last week.

Jenkins' road to The Birchmont championship began with a two-under par 70 in Monday's first qualifying round. He finished 36-hole qualifying tied for third at even-par 144.

Jenkins beat Bemidji's Ben Moen in the first round of match play Wednesday and followed with a second round victory over Justin Cross of Grand Forks, N.D. on Thursday.

He defeated University of California golfer Devin Hexner in Friday's quarterfinal, which set up Saturday morning's semifinal with Mike Christensen of Grand Rapids.

Christensen was a two-time state high school golf champion and a Minnesota amateur star in the 1990s who went on to play professional golf. He regained his amateur status earlier this summer and won the stroke-play Nemadji Invitational last week in Superior, Wis.

Jenkins defeated Christensen 1 up in the semifinal when Christensen three-putted the 18th green for bogey. It was the only lead Jenkins held in the match.

"Having Mike back is good for golf in northern Minnesota," Jenkins said. "Our match was just close and back and forth all day long."

Skarperud needed 20 holes to defeat 2007 Birchmont champion Johnny Larson in the other semifinal.

In one of the shots of the tournament, Skarperud flirted with a hole-in-one on the final hole of the match.

His ball dropped a foot in front of the cup, bounced over the hole and stopped two feet from the pin on the 210-yard, par-3 third hole. Larson hit the green, but was unable to make a difficult 25-foot birdie putt and conceded the match.

Skarperud stayed hot to start in the championship match and birdied the first hole. He held the lead until Jenkins pulled the match even with a birdie on the fourth.

Jenkins lost the lead on the sixth hole with bogey that resulted from a bad chip out of the rough next to the green.

He quickly put the bogey behind him with birdies on the seventh and eighth holes to take his first lead of the match.

Jenkins lost the chance to extend the lead over the next four holes by missing a series of putts. He then bogeyed the 11th and 12th holes.

"Not getting a birdie on 10 really hurt and then I missed putts on 11, 12, 13 and 14," Jenkins said. "I was swinging a bulky putter there and was starting to second guess myself."

That doubt resulted in a bogey on the 14th to give Skarperud his final lead of the match.

The 15th and 16th holes proved to be the critical stretch.

On 15, Jenkins hit the 492-yard par 5 in two shots. Skarperud found the greenside hazard and saved par, but it was not enough to halve the hole and Jenkins pulled the match all square with a two-putt birdie.

"When Tim hit the hazard with his second shot, it took a lot of the pressure off because I knew all I had to do was hit the green- I didn't have to go after the pin," Jenkins said.

Jenkins grabbed the lead for good on the 16th by hitting a 75-yard chip shot to the back of the green and spinning the ball to the pin at the front of the green.

Skarperud missed his long birdie putt and Jenkins made his 10-foot birdie to go 1 up for good.

"Tim is such a grinder and I knew this would be a close match," Jenkins said. "I knew that this was going to be a real close match and go 17, 18 or even extra holes and it almost did."

Skarperud is a regular player at The Birchmont and finished runner-up again. He lost to Kane Hanson in 2006 in a heartbreaking match that saw Hanson finish with nine birdies and an eagle in the span of 10 holes.

But this Birchmont was for Jenkins, who battled through blustery conditions all week long. Strong west winds Saturday afternoon gusted up to 25 miles per hour.

"I've played in this tournament for many years and I've never been able to pull it out so it feels good to finally get it done," Jenkins said.

He will return to Minneapolis Monday to begin training for an insurance job at Wells Fargo with classes in property and casualty insurance.

"I tell you what, it's going to feel better going back a winner than going back and not winning," Jenkins said.

estromgren@bemidjipioneer.com

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