Course of action: Houghton holders as U.P. D-1 Finals come north

HOUGHTON – To take the Division 1 U.P. golf championship from the Houghton boys or girls, some team’s going to have to take them from the Gremlins’ home turf.

For the first time in recent history, the U.P. Finals will be at Portage Lake Golf Course Wednesday.

On the boys’ side, Houghton’s status as defending champion demonstrates how impossible the tournament has become to predict. After failing to win any tournament in 2012, the Gremlins went to Wawonowin Country Club outside Ishpeming and won the U.P. title in a proverbial photo finish: Houghton finished tied with both Gladstone and Menominee and a shot ahead of Calumet, earning the U.P. title by using the fifth player’s score as a tiebreaker.

This time, the Gremlins enter as WestPAC champions and, playing on their home course, exist as one of the favorites.

“Particularly, the two meets on our course, we did pretty well. I would hope we’d respond and play well on Wednesday as well,” Houghton boys’ coach Jack Kumpula said.

Of all the years to have a U.P. Championship on the northernmost 18-hole course in the peninsula, this one was remarkably bad luck, given the poor excuse for a spring that has taken place. However, two tournaments and the Portage Lake Two-Man Bestball last weekend show the track is rounding into shape for championship play.

Players in previous major tournaments have remarked how PLGC’s greens can be their best defense. They were cut for the first time last week and should be ready.

“When these greens are cut well, they’re pretty quick,” Kumpula said.

Among those most likely to challenge Houghton is Marquette, which won the Great Northern Conference title with a 327 Thursday at Escanaba Country Club. Host Escanaba put four golfers into the 80s to finish second with a 336, while Calumet, Gladstone, Menominee and Negaunee should have enough firepower to challenge for at least the top five, though as the 2012 results can attest, picking a winner is next to impossible until the players put a tee in the ground.

As for the individuals, Calumet’s Reese Lassila, the best individual WestPAC player, is in the top tier.

Not only is Lassila looking to add a second U.P. medal after winning in a playoff as a freshman in 2010 (at Pine Grove in Iron Mountain), he already has rounds of 74 and 76 over the course this season.

“I’m feeling good,” Lassila said after winning the Bulldog Invite Friday. “The only thing I’m wishing is I wish the meet was tomorrow because I’m feeling hot right now.”

Other top individuals include Marquette’s Jordan Frazier and Brett Specker, the top two finishers at the GNC meet, and several of the Houghton golfers. Brendan Longhini, in particular, broke 80 in both his WestPAC rounds at PLGC.

The girls’ side looks significantly more predictable. Houghton appears to be an overwhelming favorite to win the team title for the third consecutive year. In four WestPAC meets, Houghton counted only one score over 50 for nine holes and none over 100 for 18. Only three girls broke 100 in the GNC meet, and all three were from different teams.

Individually, Megan Kelly has stood out the most of the powerful Gremlin group, but all the Houghton players will see tough individual competition, particularly from defending medalist Avery Rochester of Marquette.

Rochester, who is also the 2012 U.P. Ladies’ Golf Association champ, was three shots better than Zoe Woodworth of Calumet over Wawonowin last season. The closest players to Rochester’s 82 that will play Wednesday include Kelly, Kenna Farrey and Bailey Raffaelli of Houghton, who along with Gladstone’s Callie Jensen, shot 91.