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Miller's upset of Larson highlights first day of match-play

MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Ekren Miller studies a putt on No. 7 during Wednesday's Men's Championship action. A hot putter and overall solid play led Miller to an upset victory over Johnny Larson in the first round of match-play.

BEMIDJI -- This year's Men's Championship division of the Birchmont includes at least nine players with direct ties to the Bemidji State University men's golf team and eight of them advanced into the match-play portion of the tournament. That group included incoming BSU freshmen AJ Oster of Ham Lake and Aaron Leintz of Bagley plus alumni Paul Daman, Jim Foss, Toby Palmiscno, Troy Haluptzok and Jeff Peltier.

During Wednesday's opening day of match-play, however, the current BSU coach stole the show as Ekren Miller upset Johnny Larson of Springfield 2-up.

Larson owns two Birchmont championships and was the runner-up last summer. Miller has played in 10 Birchmonts but Wednesday's victory was his first in the Men's Championship division.

"In 2010 I got married during the Birchmont and the reception was at the Bemidji Town and Country Club," Miller said. "And that was the only other time I made it to match-play."

Late Tuesday afternoon Miller didn't know if he would make this year's match-play field as his qualification score of 155 was projected to beat or near the cut line. Fortunately, the final cut was exactly 155 and Miller was one of three golfers just sneaking into the field.

Larson took a different route into this year's match-play field. During qualifying he shot 138 and tied Matt Skarperud of Omaha for the low score. Skarperud claimed the medalist honor after defeating Larson in a playoff but both men were considered to be the favorites heading into the elimination portion of the tournament.

Skarperud won his match as he defeated No. 32 seed Bobby Frazzini of Medina 2 and 1. Larson, however, could not escape Miller who was seeded No. 31.

"I certainly consider this an upset win," Miller said. "Johnny is an accomplished Division I player but he wasn't at his best (Tuesday)."

Miller, however, did play well. Pars on the second and third holes provided an early 2-up lead but he gave a hole back with a bogey on No. 7. Miller regained his two-hole cushion when Larson carded a bogey on No. 8 and Miller owned the 2-up lead at the turn.

A wayward tee shot resulted in a bogey and a lost hole on No. 13 and another bogey on 15 allowed Larson to tie the match.

The tide turned for the final time on No. 16, however, as Larson bounced a shot off the pine trees lining the left side of the fairway and the ball was never found. Miller's win was cemented when Larson drove his tee shot on No. 18 into the pond and could do no better than bogey.

"Throughout the match I concentrated on slowing my swing and keeping my chin up," Miller, who will face Zach Israelson of Staples in today's second round, said. "I don't buy into the idea of rushing to keep up with the guys on carts. I just stayed at my pace and stayed patient, waiting for my opportunities."

No matter what happens the rest of the way, Miller is pleased with his 2013 accomplishments.

"I'm going to give it my best every day at the Birchmont but it already has been a successful tournament," he said. "Tomorrow, I have a new day to play my best. Golf is all about the progress of your personal game and enjoying the company of the guys you play with."

The other Bemidji residents who advanced Wednesday are Peltier, Daman and Palmiscno. Peltier defeated Jeff Cannon of New Hope in 20 holes while Daman posted a 4 and 3 victory over Alex McElhaney of Fargo and Palmiscno topped Eric Aughinbaugh of Fargo 3 and 2.

Peltier's match with Cannon was a classic as neither player owned a lead larger than one hole the entire day.

"I knew it was going to be a battle," Peltier said. "I poured in a long putt on No. 1 for a birdie and he chipped in on No. 2 to tie it. And we were never more than a hole up or down the rest of the way.

"We both played well and it is nice to play well when you are under pressure, especially when you are playing with one of your buddies."

Peltier's reward for Wednesday's win is to face Matt Skarperud, the top seed, in today's round.

"My goal against Matt is to just try and keep the ball in front of me and make some putts," Peltier said. "I have to keep myself in the game and not worry about what Matt's doing."

Note: Miller, Peltier and some of the other golfers in the Birchmont Men's Championship field wore a pin in support of former Bemidji resident and former BSU women's golfer Tracy Depew who is battling cervical cancer.

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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