MINNEAPOLIS -- Leif Carlson gave his short game the day off on Tuesday in the second round of the MGA Senior Amateur Championship, but it was there down the stretch at The Minikahda Club on Wednesday, just when he needed it.
The 2008 champion hit a nearly perfect chip from the long -- and grabby -- rough behind the green at the 16th hole and tapped in for a saved par. He then conjured up the biggest up-and-down of the week from an even more difficult position left of the green at the 18th, where he ended up making a 14-footer for par.
With that, he completed a comeback from four strokes behind on the final four holes to win the Senior Am for the second time in three years.
"It was just a matter of survival out there at the end," he said.
Carlson closed the deal with a final-round 75, which gave him a 54-hole total of 223 (4 over). Rick Sandretto, who was the star of the show until, as he put it, "I just got nervous," also shot 75, and he tied Dave Kokesh, who got the worst break of the day, for second place, a single stroke behind at 224.
Kokesh, who found a horrible lie with his tee shot about 3 inches into the main rough on the 17th hole -- and did well to make a bogey from there -- finished with a 76.
Danny Luther finished alone in fourth place, at 225, thanks to a concluding 73.
Bob Leaf, another former champion (2003), shot 74 to claim a share of fifth, along with reigning State Senior Public Links champ Don Howe, who had a 77.
On Tuesday, Carlson achieved a major statistical anomoly when he made nine consecutive 4's on the back nine at Minikahda (it was actually his first nine of the day). Leaf may have topped that on Wednesday, when he shot a front-nine 37 without making a single 4. He had five 5's and four 3's.
The two first-round co-leaders, Larry Barnacle and Jon Empanger, were together again at the end of the tournament, tying for seventh at 230, along with David Mooty
Barnacle, who followed his opening 73 with an 81, came back with a 76 on Wednesday for his share of seventh. Empanger, who is 55 and in his first year as a senior (for amateur tournaments; pros can play senior tournaments at age 50), went 73-78-79.
Steve Whittaker, the 57-year-old State Senior Open champion who seems well on his way to becoming the MGA's 2010 Senior Player of the Year, was part of a tie for 10th at 231, along with Pat Vincelli and David Mooty.
Barnacle, a three-time Senior Player of the Year, is second to Whittaker in the points race this year, but is more than 100 behind.
It was a young bunch in the last threesome on Wednesday. Carlson, who won the Senior Am for the first time when he was 55, is now 57. Kokesh is 55 this year, and was playing in his first Senior Am. Sandretto, who doesn't play in too many of the MGA's state championship tournaments, was also playing in his first Senior Am, even though he, like Carlson, is 57.
"I think I've played in five Senior Tour events this year," he guessed. "That's been about it."
Yet it was Sandretto who looked the most comfortable with the pressure of the final day. Having started one behind, at 149 (75-74), he birdied the fifth hole and the ninth to make the turn in 34, and arrived at the 10th tee leading by two over Carlson and Kokesh, both of whom shot 37 on the front.
Carlson birdied the par-3 11th to pull within one, but then made a triple-bogey 7 at the 12th. He skulled a wedge over the green, into some of the nasty, long stuff, chunked his next shot, and eventually three-putted for his triple.
"I didn't hit it as well today as I did yesterday (Carlson his 15 greens in regulation, plus three par-5's in two on Tuesday on his way to a 72)," he said. "I still hit it pretty well, though. It was just that when I made a mistake, it really cost me, like the one at 12."
So did he think the triple bogey knocked him out of the race?
"No," he said. "I was thinking I could birdie 13 and 14 (both are par-5's). But as it turned out, 13 was playing a lot longer than it was the first two days, and I made a good up-and-down there just to save par (after his third shot spun off the front of the green)."
Meanwhile, Kokesh was making bogeys at the 12th and 13th, which meant that both he and Carlson were now four behind Sandretto. The spread remained the same when all three birdied the 14th. At that point, Sandretto was 3 under for the day and even par for the tournament. Carlson and Kokesh were both plus 2 for the day, and 4 over for the tournament.
Sandretto bogeyed the 15th, after hitting an 8-iron approach into the bunker to the right of the green.
"I had been pretty conservative all week," he said later, "hitting to the middle of most of the greens. But I was playing well, and I decided to go at the pin (which was tucked). I thought I hit a good shot; it just wasn't long enough."
Had it landed 5 feet left and 5 feet beyond where it did, he would have had a kick-in birdie. Instead, it bounced off the bank into the bunker, and Sandretto wound up having to make a 3-foot putt for his bogey.
Despite the bogey, he was still three ahead. Then came the 16th, and Sandretto's first major mistake of the day.
Carlson hit his tee shot just over a fairway bunker on the right, and had a marginal lie, not so much a lot of grass behind the ball as a lot of grass just in front of it. Kokesh was 15 yards left of the fairway, needing to launch a high wedge to get over a tree 40 yards in front of him.
Sandretto, ironically, was in perfect position, right down the middle of the fairway, 100 yards from the green.
Carlson, a former State Publinx champ and a two-time winner of the MGA Four-Ball Championship (with partner Mark Boettcher), went first, with a 9-iron from 145 yards. It came off the clubface like a rocket, carrying more like 160 yards, all the way to the back of the green and trickling into the rough.
Kokesh was next, and he produced exactly the shot he was looking for, clearing the tree in his flight path easily and ending up 30 feet short of the hole.
Then came Sandretto, who hit his wedge fat and dumped the ball into a bunker 40 yards short of the hole. He was left with a shot that even PGA Tour pros hate (the long bunker shot), and he hit behind that one, too. The ball dropped into the next available bunker, just in front of the green.
"I had been hitting my gap wedge from 100 yards all week," he said, "and it had been working perfectly. I just got nervous, I guess."
Eventually, he made a 5-foot putt for his double-bogey 6 -- but he still led by one. He was 3 over through 52 holes, and both of his pursuers were 4 over.
Even though he had a 60-foot chip from a snaggy lie, over a ridge and down to the hole, Carlson was able to get the ball within a foot of the cup to preserve his par, and Kokesh two-putted for par.
At the 17th, both Carlson and Sandretto pulled their tee shots into the bunker left of the fairway, but both balls skidded through the bunker and found good lies in the rough, within a few feet of each other, about 10 yards left of the fairway.
Kokesh hit the best tee shot of the three and was just a few feet from the fairway, but in the primary rough, which was about 5 or 6 inches long and just swallowed his ball.
"You could see where the mowers had come into the rough," he noted, "and it wasn't more than about 2 feet ahead of where my ball was. It was just a rotten break, at a really bad time. But that's golf."
Carlson and Sandretto were able to get their wedge shots onto the green, and both made pars.
Kokesh never had a chance to get his shot to the green. He did his best, but could only gouge the ball out and advance it about 60 yards, just barely into the front bunker. From there, he did well just to make a bogey.
"I had 80 yards to the hole, and I hit my 52-degree wedge," Kokesh said. "That usually goes about 100 yards, but the lie was just too thick. As hard as I swung, I couldn't get it to go anywhere."
Carlson hit first off the 18th tee and hooked his tee shot under a pine tree, but it was a big tree, and he had plenty of room to make a swing, although he was 165 yards from the middle of the green, which was about 30 yards longer than the shot would normally have.
Kokesh split the fairway with his tee shot.
Sandretto, knowing that a par would probably give him the tournament, blocked his shot 20 yards right of the fairway. He had no shot at the green from there, and simply punched out to about 90 yards.
Carlson pulled his 7-iron. It landed at the very left edge of the green and trickled down the bank toward the bunker, but it came to rest 3 feet down the slope, once again in a tangled lie.
Kokesh hit a wedge that landed in the front middle of the green, leaving him a diabolically hard putt, even though the Minikahda greens were perfect on Wednesday. From where he was, Kokesh was going to have to putt up a significant slope, which would push the ball slightly to the right, and then over the ridge down the other side, where the ball would slide even farther to the right.
Danny Luther, who came to the 18th hole 1 under for the day and 5 over for the tournament, had just three-putted from a similar spot.
Sandretto's wedge shot didn't get much closer than Kokesh's. Maybe 35 feet.
From his spot over on the left bank, Carlson hit a pitch that seemed to come out with overspin and nearly ran off the green on the far side. It stopped just short of the fringe, setting up what would prove to be the winning putt.
Kokesh hit what was actually a pretty good putt, but left himself with 4 feet for par, which it appeared, might get him into a playoff.
The odds on a playoff involving all three players in the final group improved when Sandretto gunned his first putt 8 feet past the cup.
So now he was putting for 5, which would have put him at 223, 4 over for the tournament. If Carlson had missed, he would have had that put to win, but Carlson didn't miss.
"I didn't hit the putt quite as hard as I wanted to," the winner said. "But it was right in the center of the cup all the way. I think that was the longest putt I made the entire tournament. No, wait. I made one 20-footer for a birdie. This one was the second-longest. I guess if you're going to win, you've to got make a couple of putts somewhere."
With Carlson in at 223, Sandretto suddenly needed to make his putt just to tie. It came close, grazing the left edge of the cup, but it refused to fall.
Kokesh then made his 4-footer for par and claimed his share of second place.
"I really enjoyed this," Sandretto said, despite the disappointment of having the tournament snatched from him on the final hole. "It was my very first time playing in the final group in a tournament this big, and I thought I did pretty well for most of the round. I just needed to keep it going for a few more holes."
89th MGA Senior Amateur
At The Minikahda Club
Par 73, 6,418 yards
Leif Carlson, Hastings Country Club, 76-72-75--223
David Kokesh, Bent Creek Golf Club, 75-73-76--224
Rick Sandretto, Boulder Pointe Golf Club, 75-74-75--224
Dan Luther, The Minikahda Club, 75-77-73--225
Robert Leaf, Hazeltine National Golf Club, 78-77-74--229
Don Howe, Olympic Hills Golf Club, 77-75-77--229
David Mooty, Minikahda Club, 78-75-77--230
Jon Empanger, Island View Golf Club, 73-78-79--230
Larry Barnacle, Loggers Trail, 73-81-76--230
Brian Tell, Minneapolis Golf Club, 78-75-78--231
Steve Whittaker, Pebble Creek Golf Club, 82-74-75--231
Patrick Vincelli, Brackett's Crossing CC, 79-76-76--231
Steve Stojevich, Lester Park Golf Course, 77-76-79--232
Michael Fermoyle, Hastings Country Club, 79-78-75--232
Jerry Gruidl, Golden Valley Golf and CC, 83-72-78--233
Randy Garber, U of M Les Bolstad GC, 80-75-78--233
Randy Darcy, Windsong Farm, 79-77-78--234
Tom Smith, Bracketts Crossing C.C., 81-75-80--236
John Wells, Olympic Hills Golf Club, 80-76-80--236
Terry Moores III, Twin Cities Golf Club, 82-73-84--239
Paul Lehman, StoneRidge Golf Club, 80-76-83--239
Gary Thalhuber, Minikahda Club, 78-79-82--239
Jim Peavey, Gross National Golf Club, 77-80-83--240
Richard Blooston, Edina Country Club, 80-77-84--241
Charles Whitcher, Bunker Hills GC, 85-72-85--242
Bob Griesgraber, Indian Hills Golf Club, 84-73-86--243