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TPC Champions to challenge Stroke Play competitors

By Bill Huffman

Even though it’s billed as the No. 2 course at the TPC Scottsdale, the Champions Course continues to gain respect in its Avis role thanks in part to the Arizona Stroke Play Championship.

For a fourth straight year, the Champions will host the Arizona Golf Association’s second major championship of the season. The 144-player field that tees off Thursday through Sunday (April 14-17) is loaded with the state’s best amateurs, and the Champions has proven to be all they can handle in the three previous encounters.

Consider that Chan Kim, who captured the tournament in 2008 and 2010, holds the tournament record at 7-under-par 273, which he carded last year. And Kim never went lower than 5-under 65 in his eight trips around the Champions, which was one shot off the record 64 posted by Show Low’s Kyle Johnson also a year ago – the one and only time any golfer got to 6 under for 18 holes.

Bo Ream, director of Rules and Competitions for the AGA, points to the quality of the champions that the Champions has produced: Kim, who recently was medalist at Canadian PGA Tour qualifying school, and 2009 winner Andrew Yun, who plays golf for Stanford. Ream also noted that the AGA plays the 7,057-yard layout at a par of 70, reducing the par-5 10th hole to a par 4.

“There are several stretches on the Champions that can play very difficult, including Nos. 10-12 and Nos. 16-18,” said Ream of the tight, tree-lined design by architect Randy Heckenkemper.

“Sure, it’s not as big and tough as the TPC’s Stadium Course, where the PGA Tour plays the (Waste Management) Phoenix Open. But the Champions is a great test for our players, and we always get a lot of compliments from them about the shape and the setup of the golf course, as well as everything else that goes with running an event that we try to always make the biggest and best on our schedule.”

Two of this year’s favorites in the Stroke Play, Scottsdale residents Andrew Medley and Mike Wog, agree whole-heartedly with Ream’s assessment.

“I really like the golf course a lot,” said Medley, a former University of Arizona player and ex-touring pro who recently won the club championship at highly acclaimed Whisper Rock Golf Club, which is about 20 minutes north of the TPC Scottsdale.

“I was the runner-up in the Stroke Play last year, and I remember I doubled the last hole – that’s a really good hole – to lose by five shots. But I got to within one shot (of Kim) at the turn by making four birdies on the front, I just couldn’t keep it going.”

That Medley, who played the game on such major stages as the Gateway, Nationwide and European tours from 2004-2007, shot 71, 65, 73 and a final-round 69 speaks to the tenacity of the Champions. That he made his birdies early also is a testament to how it goes on the Champions, which slowly builds to a crescendo.

Wog, who was the 2009 AGA player of the year, also has nothing but respect for the TPC’s “little sister” to the Stadium.

“I think it’s one of the best we play on the AGA schedule, certainly the toughest,” said Wog, who finished fifth last year in this event and was the runner-up in 2009. “In fact, I shot 65 in the final round in ’09and only lost by eight (shots) to Andrew Yun. If he hadn’t played, I would have won two majors that year. So he ruined my life.

“But, seriously, I really enjoy the layout, lots of challenges throughout, and the AGA does a really good job making the tournament special.”

Wog also has had a hot hand lately, like when he won the Short Course Championship earlier this season and then followed it up with a win last weekend in the Phoenix City Amateur, where he overcame another big name in Arizona amateur golf, Ken Kellaney. In between, Wog also prevailed in the club championship at Moon Valley Country Club but was disappointed with an 11th place finish in the Arizona Publinks, the AGA’s first major in March.

“Yeah, my game has kind of come in slashes,” said Wog, pointing out his poor performance, at least by his standards, in the AZ Publinks.

“But I’m looking forward to next week; it’s always a great week of golf. And there are a lot of good players, including a bunch of high school kids, who are really on their game right now."

That list of teen-agers includes such notables as Blake Cannon, Peter Kyo Won Koo, David Lowe, Alex McMahon, Austin Quick and Zachary Wright. And remember, Kim and Yun were just kids out of Hamilton High in Chandler when they won this second major of the season.

It certainly makes for a lot of possibilities. In fact, the only thing that would seem 100 percent certain, said the TPC Scottdale’s Bill Grove, is that the Champions Course will again offer up a major exam of everyone’s game and will be, as usual, in tip-top shape with greens rolling at 10.5 on the Stimpmeter.

“Having the AGA’s premier golf tournament, the Arizona Stroke Play, fits our facility in a perfect way,” pointed out Grove, who is the general manager at the TPC and one of the co-founders of the event since it moved there in 2008.

“We host the best professionals in the world, the PGA Tour on the Stadium Course, so why not host the best amateurs in the state on the Champions? It’s a way for us to give back to the amateur body of golf in the state, and we could not be happier to have this event.”