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Birchmont: Veterans prevail to reach Saturday's semifinals

Johnny Larson hits a shot during his quarterfinal match Friday at Bemidji Town & Country Club. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Of the 70 golfers who started The Birchmont's men's championship Monday, it is hardly surprising to see who reached the final four.

Tom Jenkins, Tim Skarperud, Johnny Larson and Mike Christensen all won Friday quarterfinal matches to set up Saturday's veteran showdown in the semifinals.

Christensen, a Grand Rapids native, is a former professional who earned amateur golf fame around the state by winning titles in the mid-1990s.

Larson, of Springfield, is the 2007 men's champion and has won close matches this week by playing under-par golf.

Skarperud, of Grand Forks, N.D., was the 2006 runner up in an epic championship match with Kane Hanson. In that match, Hanson rallied from four down with nine birdies and an eagle in the span of 10 holes to win.

Jenkins, of Maple Grove, is one of the top amateur players in the state, a three-time Bemidji Town & Country Club Vandersluis champion and a Bemidji High School graduate.

Showdown Saturday will showcase excellent golf and the one left standing with two victories will no doubt earn the title of Birchmont Champion.

"I think it's going to be great," Skarperud said. "Tom is a great golfer, Christensen has all of that experience and Johnny is playing unbelievable this week. It's just going to be great to play in a group with these guys."

The semifinals group tees off at 9 a.m. Skarperud will play Larson in one match and Jenkins will face Christensen in the other match. The championship match is expected to begin around 1:45 p.m.

Christensen needed a clutch shot and 20 holes to defeat Jesse Nelson of Pine River on Friday.

"Jesse was in control the entire way and I really enjoyed playing against him - he played great," Christensen said.

Nelson, who works in guest services at Deacon's Lodge golf course, stayed on top of Christensen most of the match and was 2 up through 14 holes.

But bogey trouble brought the match all square after 16 holes before Christensen's unlikely three-putt on the 17th green returned the lead to Nelson.

On the 18th hole, Nelson putted out with par and Christensen was left on the fringe needing to make a 20-foot chip shot for birdie to stay alive. The ball rolled slowly on the green and fell into the side of the hole to extend the match.

"It's a different feeling when you have to make a shot," Christensen said. "I pulled the flag out so I could focus in and concentrate on not hitting it too hard. Andrew, my caddy, said I hadn't made a chip the entire week so now was the time to do it."

The match ended on the 20th hole, the par-3 second, when Nelson sprayed his tee shot to the right over the cart path. Christensen made par from the front of the green and Nelson was unable to make the up-and-down shots to stay alive.

Larson led Josh Bergrud of Grand Forks wire-to-wire for a 6 and 5 victory.

Bergrud gave the lead to Larson on the first hole with a bogey and was unable to recover. Larson extended his lead with an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole and a birdie on the sixth.

He chipped in for birdie on the 10th hole to go 5 up and was five-under-par when the match ended on the 13th.

In his first match this week at the Birchmont, Larson played the front nine at one-over par. Since then, he's played the last 38 holes at 13-under par.

"Ready for a big Birchmont Saturday," Larson wrote on his Twitter account after Friday's match. "What a final four!"

Skarperud pulled away on the back nine of his match with Thomas Strandemo of Fargo to win 4 and 2.

Strandemo bogeyed three of the first four holes on the back nine to give Skarperud a 3-up advantage after 13 holes. He closed out the match with birdies on the 15th and 16th holes.

Skarperud was four-under par through 16 holes.

At age 15, Strandemo impressed this week at The Birchmont. His father, Guy Strandemo, was recently assigned a U.S. diplomatic tour in Hong Kong and followed Birchmont play this week on the Internet from southeast Asia.

While Fargo is listed as Strandemo's hometown, he's lived in Beijing, Quatar and Washington, D.C. over the last seven years.

"He has a bright future in golf," Skarperud said. "He's a good kid and has a real good head on his shoulders."

Jenkins defeated University of California golfer Devin Hexner of San Francisco 3 and 2.

All square after two holes, Jenkins birdied the third to go ahead and held the lead the rest of the match.

Jenkins is 1997 Bemidji High School graduate and is playing in his first Birchmont since 2006.

Jenkins finished runner-up in the 2001 and 2002 men's championship to David Schultz.

Jenkins is a regular on the Minnesota tournament scene and made the match play round of 16 in the recent Minnesota Players Championship. He finished tied for 14th place at last week's state amateur.

"I feel really good about this tournament and I've been playing well this week," Jenkins said. "I know Christensen well from golf around the state because he's only three years older than I am. When I was growing up, he was one of the guys I looked up to."

Jenkins switched drivers for Friday's match and said he's feeling positive about the change. He's hoping his experience at the Country Club will be a benefit on Saturday.

"I've played this course hundreds and hundreds of times," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting out tomorrow morning."