Breeze makes medalist push

There was little reason to think Bret Breeze and Eric Austad would battle it out for the low round in qualifying Tuesday at the Southern Oregon Golf Tournament.

A couple days earlier, Breeze's swing ran away from him as quickly as a downhill putt on a fast green.

For the past month, Austad barely picked up a club. He had arthroscopic knee surgery four weeks ago and was busy as an assistant coach for the Medford Mustangs baseball team that played deep into the summer.

Yet both summoned unexpectedly solid games as the week-long tournament kicked off at Rogue Valley Country Club.

Breeze, playing in the pre-eminent group alongside Austad and course-record holder Mike Barry, shot a 2-under-par 70 to take the early lead for medalist in the men's division. Austad wound up a stroke back, sharing second place with Brad Bills, while Barry shot 74.

Only local men qualified on Tuesday. Women and out-of-town men qualify today — meaning any of the first-day medalists can be supplanted. Match play begins Thursday and runs through Labor Day.

Others in the hunt for qualifying honors in their divisions are Bob Harrell, whose 71 in the senior men's division matched his age, and Glen Clark and Bryan Schlafke, who each shot 73 in the junior-senior men's division.

Clark, long one of the top men's division players and runner-up last year to Brooks Newsom in the championship flight, is in the junior-senior's for the first time.

In fact, it was Clark who helped Breeze resurrect a swing in time for the tournament.

The two were at the driving range as Breeze desperately sought answers as to why his swing vamoosed. Clark offered a tip, then the two of them called swing coach Ed Fisher, who was out of town. With Clark manning the phone and relaying advice, a cure was discovered.

"They saved me to where I could at least get the club face on the ball," said Breeze, who tied for medalist honors one other time but lost a playoff.

He was not without flaws Tuesday. He pulled a few short irons and lost a couple of tee shots — one out of bounds on No. 6 that led to a double bogey and one on the 18th hole that put him behind a tree and contributed to a bit of drama on the closing hole.

But Breeze overcame the blips with some outstanding shots, including a 4-iron that he punched and cut from 150 yards on the par-4 10th hole, putting it within 6 feet of the hole en route to his third straight birdie.

"I felt pretty good," said Breeze, who also eagled the par-5 first hole. "Besides pulling some iron shots and losing those two drives, if I can figure that out, I have a chance."

He also credited his dad for offering sound advice during a 20-minute lecture that morning.

The gist? "Take it one shot at a time," said Breeze.

Breeze was 3 under and Austad was 2 under — after a downhill 25-foot birdie on No. 17 — heading into their final hole.

Austad pulled his tee shot left into trees on the par 4, then Breeze pushed his to the right, also into trees.

Both hit their approaches about the same time, Austad coming up just short of the green and pin high on the left, and Breeze's ball coming to rest on the same side but a bit farther off.

Both chipped close for a chance at par. When Breeze's 4-foot putt slid just past the right side of the hole, Austad settled over his 3-footer, aware that a make would result in a tie.

"After he missed his, I was pretty determined," said Austad, who has never been medalist. "But it broke a little more left than I thought it would."

It was one of the few close putts Austad missed. He put a belly putter in play for the first time and liked the results.

"I made a lot of 5-footers," he said, "some were for birdies, some for pars."

And one at No. 16 was for eagle.

At No. 18, Breeze said he wasn't aware only one shot separated him and Austad.

"I didn't know what Eric was shooting at all," said Breeze. "I was trying to pay attention to what I was doing, but I kind of got it after I saw the reaction (to Austad's missed putt)."

Breeze would be thrilled to earn medalist honors, but it doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of the match-play format.

Plus, he said, "I think you'll see lower scores tomorrow."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail

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