UPGA starts today
ESCANABA — A high-caliber field is primed and ready to challenge a highly-regarded and well-manicured golf course this week.
A field of 96 golfers are entered for the 107th annual Upper Peninsula Golf Association men’s tournament, and the 106-year-old Escanaba Country Club is ready for the battle, with eight former UPGA champions in the field.
Tourney play began at 8 a.m. today and resumes at 7:45 a.m. Friday. The field will be split into flights for the final two days and is expected to end about 5 p.m. Sunday. Spectators are encouraged to attend. ECC director of golf Jeff Rae and former ECC golf directors Jon Lancour and Gary Greis comprise the rules committee.
Five former members who died in the past year will be honored, including past ECC president Don Wertz, six-time club champion Tom Gregoire, Jack Manning, Ray Gollach and Carol Lancour.
A championship belt will be awarded to the winner for the first time, along with a blazer. A team champion will also be decided after Sunday’s final round.
Rae has been playing at ECC since he was nine years old and said, “This is the best shape I’ve ever seen it. The greens are healthy, they are phenomenal. (Course superintendent) Tyler Finch and his crew and members have helped and gotten the course to where in my opinion it is championship ready.”
The rough can be daunting, the greens are slick and smooth. The ever-present wind — especially in the afternoon — adds to the challenge on a course that will play between 5,974 yards and 6,261 yards. Rae said it will not be tricked up to increase the difficulty.
“It will be nothing crazy,” said Rae. “We are trying to make the course scoreable, but I don’t think you’ll see many sub-70 rounds.”
However, Rae pointed out that two former UPGA champions and ECC members scored well Tuesday, with 2013 UPGA champion Scott Lancour shooting 65 and two-time former champion Brian Robinette (1995 and 1996) hit 67. Robinette was also runner-up in 2002.
Rae also noted the UPGA specifies courses should be set up without extreme difficulty in the equation, noting pace of play slows considerably on tougher layouts. Those conditions helped lead to extremely long rounds in 2004 and 2005.
This is the first time ECC will host the tournament since 2008 when current Michigan State University assistant golf coach Dan Ellis of Negaunee won the first of his two titles.
ECC was deemed the host when Manistique Indian Lake Golf and Country Club decided to not host.
The one-course format returned in 2008 after two courses were used from 1992-2007. The record turnout of 432 came in 1998 at Norway Oak Crest and Iron Mountain Pine Grove, but player numbers have dwindled in recent years, with only 72 at Gladstone Terrace Bluff in 2019 and a record low 64 at Menominee Riverside in 2020.
Southpaw Matt Argall of Terrace Bluff is the reigning champion. He also won in 2015 at Marinette Little River.
Other former champions this week include Jon Ellis of Pine Grove, Matt Smith of ECC, Bryce Douglas of Terrace Bluff, Joe Quinn of Gladstone and two-time winner Mark Clements of Ishpeming Wawonwin.
Former UPGA Senior champions entered include three-time winner Jim Wagner of Little River, southpaw Mark Ray of Highland Golf Club and Paul Schrader of ECC.
While former winners are among the top contenders this week, also watch for 2020 runner-up Scott Prunick of Marquette, Dom Benetti of Escanaba, Dave Ellis of Negaunee and North Central High School incoming senior Bryson Mercier, who was the Wisconsin Junior Player of the Year in 2020. Mercier has been a steady high-level player on the Wisconsin junior tour.
“I think 20-25 guys could realistically win,” said Rae. “You’ve got to go low for four days. It is a grind and a windy course weighs on you.”
That means some of the younger players used to grinding for several days, like Mercier and Douglas, who plays at University of Detroit, could hold an edge.