After trailing by five strokes going into the final nine holes Sunday, Mike Christensen was able to eliminate that deficit and win last weekend’s Smokey Bear Golf Invitational at the Falls Country Club on a playoff hole.
Mike Christensen, who now lives in Minneapolis and last won the tournament in 1996, was able to capture the 61st annual Smokey Bear overall title with a birdie on the par-four hole No. 9 to win the playoff over his cousin, Dave Christensen of Elk River, last year’s runner-up and the 2013 champion.
“It’s pretty surreal. Everything happened pretty fast,” Mike Christensen said. “Dave’s been playing so well, and the last thing I expected to do was to catch him.”
Dave Christensen carded the top score of 66 after the first 18 holes Saturday to go six shots under par and lead Mike Christensen by a stroke going into Sunday’s final 27 holes in the two-day men’s amateur golf tournament.
Dave Christensen extended his lead to five strokes when he also had the best score of 68 for the first 18 holes Sunday when Mike Christensen carded an even-par 72.
Mike Christensen forced a playoff hole by golfing a six-under-par 31 for the final nine holes when Dave Christensen had a one-under-par 36 with both golfers finishing with 170 for 45 holes. Mike Christensen recorded birdies on holes No. 2-7, while Dave Christensen picked up a birdie on hole No. 5.
“I happened to get on a hot stretch there (on the final nine holes) and I needed everyone of those (birdies) to catch Dave, and he’s such a great player,” Mike Christensen said.
Both golfers hit their tee shots close to the green for the playoff on hole No. 9, but it was their chip shots that made the difference as to who would win the title. Dave Christensen overshot the green on his chip shot and had to chip again to be able to putt for a par. Mike Christensen chipped the ball on the green and made the birdie putt for the tournament win.
“(Winning the overall title is) pretty special. I really love the Smokey Bear,” Mike Christensen said. “I’ve been up here since I’ve been 5-6 years old caddying for my dad. It’s pretty emotional to be able to come back at this point and time in your life and be able to win.”
Mike Christensen, who noted he had a break in playing in the Smokey Bear tournament when he golfed professionally, said he has golfed in the tournament about 7-8 times and plans to be back next year to defend his overall title.
“It’s hopefully going to be a permanent place on our calendar, unless something comes up, so we’ll plan to be back,” he said.
Mike and Dave Christensen both finished eight strokes ahead of this year’s third-place finisher, Casey Hill, at 178. Hill won the title in 2012.
The 2014 overall champion, Glenn Walls, did not play in this year’s tournament.
BOB MASON REPEATS IN SENIOR DIVISION
In the senior division for golfers age 50 and older, which is in its fourth year as part of the Smokey Bear tournament, Falls native and current Minnesota Wild goalie coach Bob Mason repeated as the champion.
Mason, who last won the overall championship in 2005, said his tee shots were key to him being able to win the senior division title for the second year in a row.
“I hit (tee shots) straight and long and gave myself a lot of short irons to the greens,” he said. “I hit a lot of greens, so what was probably the key for me was keeping it straight, especially on the back (nine).”
Mason, who was tied Tony Zika for the lead Saturday after the first 18 holes at 75, finished with a 45-hole score of 185, four strokes ahead of Bart Vollmer at 189. Zika ended up third at 190.
As for the possibility of being able to win the senior division three times in a row, Mason said he plans on golfing in next year’s Smokey Bear tournament.
“As long as they’re having the Smokey, I can get back up here,” he said. “I’ll be back up here. It’s a great highlight weekend of the year for us.”
TOURNEY DRAWS MORE THAN 100
Tournament director Dave Cronin said this year’s tournament had slightly more than 100 entrants with the championship flight having 17 golfers who shot 77 or better after 18 holes Saturday and the senior flight having 13 golfers age 50 and older who shot 81 or better after the first 18 holes.
Cronin noted the other golfers were placed in nine separate flights, based on their scores on Saturday, to play 18 holes on Sunday.
In addition to gift certificates from the Falls Country Club being awarded to golfers finishing in the top half of their fights, crystal cups were presented to the overall and senior champions.