by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Steve Johnson is a 12-time Elk River Golf Club champion and holds the course record, but one distinction that’s always eluded him is the Companions Classic title.
Until this weekend, that is, when Johnson teamed with Brad Grupa to place first among 42 teams with a sparkling 200 net. They have a tiny handicap, but prevailed anyway by averaging a tidy 72.25 per round.
“I’d never won this one,” said Johnson. “This is a big tournament, very popular with the memo era, a lot of participation, so it’s kind of important.”
Johnson and Grupa have paired up the last four years. They placed second last year.
Grupa, always one of the top contenders in club tournaments, had won the Companions just once previously.
“And that was at least 20 years ago,” he said, adding that Rick Larson was his partner that year. He figures he’s played in about 75 percent of these over the years.
“It’s hard to even get in the money (in this tournament),” Grupa said. “You’ve just got to settle in and do best you can, and know that anything around your handicap is going to be good.”
Runners-up were Stan Sizen and his son-in-law Matt Jackson with 202. Placing third were Frank Carlson and Bob Stuttgen with 203. Tying for fourth with 204’s were Jeff Smith/Mike Bodnar and Chris Miller/Tim Kratzke. Last year’s champs, Craig Walz and Gary Johnson, tied for ninth.
Johnson said that he “still gets nervous” no matter how many titles he’s won.
“You’ve heard of the ‘yips.’ Well, as I get older, I have a bit of that,” said Johnson. “I get nervous when I stand over a three-foot putt. I get nervous when I play in front of a crowd, like at the end today. But its fun to do that, to have a chance to get nervous, trying to win something you really want to win.”
The retired teacher and golf coach whose 60 in 2003 is the course record shot a sizzling 69 Saturday, his best score in a couple of years. His first drive went into the trees. Undaunted, he wound up making a long birdie putt, a great start. He added four more birdies before the day was over. “I hit more crisply than I’ve been doing this summer and putted better, too,” said Johnson, who followed that with a 75 on Sunday.
Grupa, who shot 75 Saturday and 70 Sunday, said he hit the ball the same both days, but had “a couple bad breaks in hazards” Saturday that cost him two penalty strokes, and things went better the final 18, highlighted by two chips into the cup.
Johnson lauded his partner’s short game.
“Our greens at Elk River are so small,” said Johnson, “that you are not going to hit all of them, and when you miss them, the difference between good player and a bad player is getting it up and down. Brad is as good at that as anyone in the club.”
Sizen and Jackson were just two strokes back. They were tied for eighth with 63, four strokes back, after Saturday’s best-ball 18 holes, and moved up seven slots Sunday when Jackson shot 79 gross and Sizen 88.
“We just didn’t mess up,” said Jackson. “We both had one bad hole, but that’s about it.”
The in-laws played together last year, too, and made the top ten. Sizen, a Links at Northfork member, said he came over to ERGC to practice a few times, in hopes of challenging for the top spot.
“It worked out fantastic,” said Sizen.
“We work well tougher,” said Jackson. “If he gets down, I pick him up, and if I get down, he picks me up.”
Jackson, a forward on Elk River’s 2001 state hockey championship team, is a member at both ERGC and Links.
Matt’s wife and Stan’s daughter, Missy, placed fourth in the women’s event with Amy Lord. “They couldn’t have done it without me!” grinned Vicki Sizen, Stan’s wife, who tended to Matt and Missy’s newborn, Cullen, while the others golfed. Vicki usually plays in this event herself but had recent surgery on a foot.
Leading after Saturday’s best-ball rounds were Carlson and Stuttgen with 58. The next two after Saturday were Jerry Bird/Dick Heger with 59 and George Sanford/Roger Lamp with 60. Those duo’s wound up sixth and seventh, respectively. Grupa and Johnson were tied for fourth with 61.
In Sunday’s 18, when everyone has to play their own ball, Grupa and Mike Bodnar tied for low with 70, followed by Cory Pike 72, Tim Kratzke 73, and Jon Williams and Paul Granning 74.
The tourney was played in high-80’s sunshine both days, after the course was soaked with a three-inch rainfall on Friday evening but held up well.
Grupa said the Companions Classic is always a great time.
“You get a majority of membership (participating) and they really enjoy themselves. It’s more of a fellowship thing, a get together. And we had great weather this year.”
Top ten among 42 teams
1. Steven Johnson and Brad Grupa 200
2. Matt Jackson and Stan Sizen 202
3. Frank Carlson and Bob Stuttgen 203
4. Jeff Smith and Mike Bodnar 204
Chris Miller and Tim Kratzke 204
6. Jerry Bird and Dick Heger 205
7. George Sanford and Roger Lamp 206
8. Tom Hellerstedt and James Baldwin 207
9. Larry Grandbois and Gordy Ova 208
Scott Istrup and Dan Falck 208
Don Gilleshammer and Mike Stapleton 208
Bob Catron and Tim Cox 208
Andy Lee and Lee Bunker 208
Craig Walz and Gary Johnson 208