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Birchmont: Johnny Larson wins second Men's Championship

2011 Birchmont Men's Champion Johnny Larson follows his shot on No. 11 Saturday at Bemidji Town & Country Club. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

There were only 14 golfers with multiple Men's Championship titles heading into this week's 87th Birchmont at Bemidji Town & Country Club.

Johnny Larson of Clements, Minn. added his name to the list Saturday.

The 2007 champion watched Matt Skarperud of Omaha, Neb. erase a three-hole deficit in the middle of the match, but pulled his game together in a pressure-packed moment late and won the championship 2-up.

"It's always better the second time around," said Larson, who played in his 18th career Birchmont this week. "I had a lot of support from my friends and family here, my dad was on the bag - the tournament was just really fun on and off the course this year."

Larson's clutch shot came on the par-4 17th hole when Skarperud was threatening to square the match.

After Larson hit his approach shot over the green, Skarperud followed with a smooth strike and was left with a 12-foot putt to the hole tucked in the back left corner of the green.

Larson then failed to get his chip shot on the green and was left with another chip. He walked to the cup, pulled the pin and holed out the 20-foot shot to put pressure back on Skarperud.

"I had a poor lie behind the green for the first shot because there was no grass where my ball was," Larson said. "The second shot was an easy chip and I had a pretty good feeling about it. I just had to get it on a line."

Skarperud missed his birdie putt and needed some magic on the par-4 18th hole to continue the match. But his shot out of the greenside bunker left to a tight pin left a 35-foot par putt and he conceded the hole.

"Johnny and I both played well," Skarperud said. "It was really windy today and the conditions were tough. I battled back to get it to even, but a couple missed opportunities down the stretch cost me."

Skarperud defeated his brother Chad of Grand Forks, N.D., 3 and 2 in a Saturday morning semifinal and Larson defeated Michael Slominski of Grand Forks 2 and 1 in the other semifinal to set up the championship match.

Larson took the lead on the par-4 first hole when Skarperud three-putted for bogey. He went 2-up with an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole and extended his lead to 3-up on the par-4 fifth hole with a par when Skarperud bogeyed.

The fourth hole was one of Larson's best of the match. He hit driver off the tee of the 500-yard hole, stuck a 6-iron to 10 feet and made the putt.

Skarperud worked his way back into the match with birdies on the par-3 seventh and the par-5 ninth holes to cut Larson's lead to 1-up. The match was squared when Larson missed a six-foot par putt on the par-4 12th hole.

"I was a little worried and a little frustrated," Larson said. "When you have a three-hole lead you want to put the pedal to the floor. The momentum switches like that and we had some see-saw battles."

Larson regained the lead on the par-3 14th hole by putting an eight iron to 10 feet for a two-putt par. Skarperud found a greenside bunker and left a 15-foot par putt from the fringe inches short for a bogey.

Skarperud fell behind two holes when an errant tee shot left into the hazard on the par 5 15th hole resulted in a par. Larson put two routine shots to the front collar and made an easy birdie.

Larson had an opportunity to win the match on the par 4 16th hole. Both players hit strong approach shots close to the pin - Skarperud drained his seven-foot putt for birdie and Larson missed is 10-foot putt.

When Larson grimaced at the first chip shot to not make the 17th green, it looked as though momentum was shifting again and his third extra holes match of the tournament was closing in. Instead Larson composed himself, found the shot to take away the pressure and walked off the 18th green a two-time champion.

Like his 2007 championship run, Larson was the 36-hole qualifying medalist in this week's tournament. He defeated Motley's Michael Strain 6-and-5 in the first round, Bemidji's Chase Jackson in 20 holes in the second round and Crookston's Jake Sanders in 20 holes in the quarterfinal.

"The first day everything went great for me but nothing was handed to me or easy after that," Larson said. "It's a mentally and physically draining tournament and I'm glad it's over - in the right way."

"I'll be coming back next year," he said.

There are 12 golfers who have won two Birchmont Men's Championships and the last was Rick Passolt (2003, 05). There are no three time-winners. Russ Simenson (1987-89, 91), Jim Strandemo (1983, 90, 94, 96) and Phil Olson (1944, 45, 46, 56) are four-time winners.