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Birchmont: Michigan's Lilleboe making run in Men's Championship

Eric Lilleboe claimed his third Men's Championship match-play victim Friday as he downed Clint Cornell 4-3. Lilleboe will battle Sam Matthew in today's semifinals. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Among the charms of the Birchmont are the familiar names that return year after year. Many participants plan their vacations around the week-long event and make their reservations a year in advance to ensure that they will be at the Bemidji Town& Country Club to shake the hand of a friend they haven't seen since last year.

Another Birchmont tradition, however, is the annual emergence of a new face on the Men's Championship scene. Each summer someone from somewhere makes a run at the title and becomes part of Birchmont history.

This year that somebody is Eric Lilleboe of Okemos, Mich.

After tying for third in the medalist chase with rounds of 74-68-142, Lilleboe coasted to victories in his first two match-play outings. In the opening round he zapped Ben Moen of Bemidji 8-7 and Thursday he thumped Matt Norby of Grand Forks 8-6.

During Friday's quarterfinals Lilleboe forged a 2-up lead at the turn and widened the gap on the back-nine to post a 4-3 win over Clint Cornell of Grand Rapids. His reward is a berth in today's semifinals against Sam Matthew of Burnsville who dethroned defending champion Tom Jenkins of Plymouth 1-up.

In Friday's lower bracket, Kevin Krigbaum of Brooklyn Park defeated Mike Levitt of Bemidji 6-4 and Matt Skarperud of Scottsdale, Ariz. downed Scott Messmer of Houston, Texas 5-4.

Although unfamiliar to most Birchmont participants and spectators on Monday, Lilleboe has turned a few heads with his stellar play. After five days of action it is apparent that Lilleboe is the best player in the field that no one had heard of.

"Our family members are friends with the Skarperuds and they invited us to Bemidji and to the tournament," Lilleboe said. "I am enjoying the week. It has been a good vacation and a good tournament."

Lilleboe is a recent graduate of Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich. and earned his degree in golf management. A Division II school, Ferris State finished second at the national tournament and, individually, Lilleboe placed 37th.

Next month Lilleboe will be in Dupont, Washington for the U.S. Amateur. He earned that honor by winning a qualifying tournament in Boyne Highland, Mich.

"There were three spots available for the U.S. Amateur and I tied for medalist with a 5-under-par," Lilleboe said.

Friday at the Birchmont Lilleboe never trailed although he and Cornell were even after six holes. A birdie on No. 7 and another on No. 9 gave Lilleboe a 2-up lead at the turn and he sandwiched a lost hole on No. 11 with wins at No. 10 and No. 12.

When the match ended after 15 holes Lilleboe's card read 1-under-par.

"I came here wanting to give myself an opportunity to win the Birchmont and I've done that," Lilleboe said. "It all started with qualifying and from there you take things match by match.

"What I have learned about the Birchmont is that this is a good field of golfers," Lilleboe continued. "Anybody left in the field can step up at any time and have five or six birdies in 12 holes. This course is made to allow anybody to step up and everybody has an equal chance to win the championship."

Matthew also has turned more than a few heads this week as he has successfully made the transition from the Junior Division to the Men's Championship field.

The 17-year-old, who has claimed two Junior titles and a runner-up finish in the past three summers, opened his Birchmont with a 4-3 win over Nick Forsberg of Staples and Thursday he stopped Paul Daman of Bemidji 2-1.

On Friday Matthew claimed his third victim when he eliminated the defending champion.

Needing to capture the last hole to extend the match Jenkins hit his approach over the green and onto the bank. Matthew was 15 feet left of the pin after his second shot and watched as Jenkins' chip rolled 12 feet past the cup. After Matthew putted within three feet, Jenkins made that putt to force the youngster to drain his. And Matthew did, although the ball did a 360-degree spin around the cup before dropping.

Krigbaum and Skarperud both shot 3-under-par before ending their matches after 14 holes.

"Advancing to the semifinals feels very good," Krigbaum said. "I've played Matt before and it will take a great effort on my part to win. It's been a fun tournament and we both have made a good run. We'll see who shows up on Saturday."

"At this point you just hope to progressively get better," Skarperud said. "Kevin, obviously, is playing well and it's going to be a tough match. At this point pars aren't much good and you are going to need as many birdies as you can get

"I'll have to develop an aggressive attitude to get those birdies and try to win," Skarperud added.

The Men's Championship semifinals will begin at 8:05 a.m. The two survivors will rest for about 30 minutes before staging the title match.

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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