BEMIDJI -- When Sarah Israelson wiggled out of her golf responsibilities in college, she thought that’d be the end of it.

“In college, I had to take a gym class,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well, golf would be easy. I’ll just go to golf practice.’ And then our coach said, ‘Why don’t you just play on the team?’ … I went to one tournament and I made excuses for the rest of them.”

Decades later, Israelson has found that escaping the sport has proven to be rather difficult.

“People will ask me, ‘What does your husband do, what do your kids do?’” she said. “My world is golf.”

That’s the territory that comes with being an Israelson -- as royal a name as they come on the shores of Lake Bemidji. But, growing up as Sarah Daman, her family also has plenty of championship genes of its own.

Sarah’s father, Jim Daman, won the inaugural executive flight at the Birchmont Golf Tournament in 1982. Her brothers, Ted and Hearst, respectively won the Birchmont junior championships in 1980 and 1984. And another brother, Paul, has a lifetime of Birchmonts under his belt.

Sarah also married into a life of golf.

Her husband, Bill, won the men’s division in 1973 and 1979. He is a former PGA Tour professional and was inducted into the Minnesota Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. A 1975 Bemidji High School graduate, Bill also won a state championship with the Lumberjacks his senior year.

All three of Sarah and Bill’s children -- Zach, Emily and Andrew -- are regulars at the Birchmont. Andrew won the men’s division in 2016 and 2017, while Emily claimed the women’s division title in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Following in the footsteps of Nathan and Amy Anderson from 2006, Andrew and Emily are just the second brother-sister duo to win the Birchmont in the same year.

“Nobody forced them (to play golf),” Sarah said of her children. “Bill did not ever force any of them. It really was their own internal (drive) that said, ‘I want to do this.’”

Zach Israelson tees off at hole No. 2 on Monday during the first day of the 96th annual Birchmont Golf Tournament at the Bemidji Town and Country Club. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Zach Israelson tees off at hole No. 2 on Monday during the first day of the 96th annual Birchmont Golf Tournament at the Bemidji Town and Country Club. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Sarah, by her own admission, is a golfer like the rest of her family. She once competed in the Birchmont -- playing in the self-titled “fun flight” more for leisure than anything.

“I six-putted the 13th hole. That was my claim to fame,” she admitted. But there was a silver lining, too: “The next day, I only four-putted. So it was an improvement.”

All the same, the Birchmont has remained an annual tradition all over Sarah’s family tree. This year, Andrew and Zach are in the men’s division, while Emily is competing in the women’s division. Paul Daman is in the senior men’s division and his son, Ryan, is in the junior 13-17 field, while Sarah’s brother, Thomas Daman, is in the executive men’s division.

“I’d much rather watch them than go out and play myself,” Sarah said. “I’m super proud. … It’s very fun to watch them play and interact with other players. I think it’s a great sport for life.”

Sarah’s name may not be the one on the championship hardware, or the one immortalized on the Birchmont’s Role of Champions. But she’s given the game plenty -- and likewise in return.

“It’s really hard to talk to non-golfers about the importance of the sport in our life,” she said. “It’s how my husband and I met. … It’s gotten three kids through college, and they’ve all been on the honor roll, as well. It’s done a lot for us.”