Newbies shake up men's division

Golfers played through sweltering conditions Thursday in Medford, but that didn't stop a new breeze from blowing through the 78th annual Southern Oregon Golf Tournament.

A handful of the tournament's mainstays in the men's championship division were unceremoniously bounced to the first flight Thursday, including two of the top local qualifiers in Bret Breeze and Eric Austad and three-time former champion Doug Olson.

In their stead were first-time SOGT players John Warner and Jesse Taylor and second-year competitor Aaron Rayburn.

Also advancing through the first round of match play at Rogue Valley Country Club were first-timers Chris and Nic Polski of Eugene, Chris and Jack Dukeminier of Eugene and teenagers J.T. Compher of Phoenix and John Clarke of Medford.

"We want to bring some new blood into it this year," Chris Polski said with a laugh after his 6-and-5 win over Perry Hunt.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the Olson-Taylor match, with Phoenix High senior-to-be Taylor edging Olson 1-up. The 17-year-old standout birdied two of the opening three holes in Thursday's match and was 3-up by the turn, then had all he could handle in staving off the 60-year-old Olson down the stretch.

"He kept fighting and played very good," said Taylor of his veteran foe. "I had six birdies on the day and only beat him 1-up, so he played very good."

Taylor said he found out he would be paired with Olson around 11 p.m. Wednesday and didn't get much sleep knowing he'd be facing the former PGA professional in his first Southern Oregon. The age limit to play in the SOGT was lowered to 16 last year, opening the door for players like Taylor.

"I expected it to be a good match," said Taylor. "I didn't count myself out of it, but I sure as hell didn't expect to win."

"It's an honor to play with someone that's been through as much as he has and done all he's done," he added of Olson, who won the first of his three SOGT titles when he was 19 and has had one of the most distinguished golfing careers in Medford lore. Olson also won the men's division in 1984 and '97.

Count Rayburn as another of Thursday's winners who entered their match confident, but not necessarily favored, to walk away victorious.

The North Medford High boys basketball assistant played in his first SOGT last year but lost his opening-round match and was ousted in the quarterfinals of first-flight action. The odds weren't on his side against perennial contender Breeze on Thursday, but the 37-year-old Rayburn managed to go 1-up with a par on the 17th hole against the top local qualifier, and they halved the 18th to close out the match.

"It was kind of back-and-forth the whole way," said Rayburn. "Neither one of us really tore it up out there."

Their match featured one hole where Breeze and playing partner Compher each played the wrong ball, and Rayburn followed that with two straight three-putt greens.

"I just hit the shots down the stretch," Rayburn said of the difference in Thursday's match. "I just kept reminding myself to stay loose and hit the shots."

Rayburn's win underscored the notion that this year's men's division might be the most talented from top to bottom as any in history. Breeze carded a 2-under 70 in qualifying, besting Austad and Brad Bills by one stroke for the top local mark.

"You're going to run into a bunch of good players being in the championship flight, that's just the way it is," said Rayburn, whose golfing progress has been slowed by knee and back injuries in recent years. "Bret's a heckuva player, and I'm really fortunate to beat him."

Breeze found himself in good company, with Austad falling 4 and 3 to Warner and other local favorites Todd Dixon, Kevin Dixon and Justin Wise all succumbing Thursday.

The poster boy for a youth movement at the SOGT, Chris Polski, couldn't quite manage the same magic that led to him carding a 7-under 65 to take medalist honors during qualifying Wednesday, but he was good enough a day later.

"I was a little shakier today to be honest," said Polski. "I don't think either one of us played real well. It was just kind of the battle of the bad, and I came out a little better."

Polski, 20, was sensational from tee to green during qualifying but couldn't find the same touch in his first-round match. While nerves didn't really factor into getting a little "handsy" with his irons, the 2005 Sheldon High graduate did comment on how difficult match play can be — especially when word leaks out on your low score in qualifying.

"Especially coming off being medalist, you always have that kind of in the back of your mind," Polski said of potential first-round failure. "I wasn't putting too much pressure on myself but, at the same time, you don't want to be beat in the first round. You want to give yourself a chance. If you get through the first match, you can take it one by one from there. The nice thing about match play is you don't have to beat 125 other guys, you just have to beat six."

And in the Dukeminier's case, you have to beat your brother. Jack Dukeminier, who teamed with Polski on Sheldon's championship golf team in 2005, scored a 3-and-2 victory over Hank Munn. His reward will be facing older brother Chris at 10:40 today in the second round. Chris Dukeminier, who now resides in California, also scored an opening 3-and-2 victory.

In other action Thursday, Jay Audia outlasted Mark Binegar in the marquee matchup of the junior-senior division, while defending senior men's champion Keith Valk and medalist Terry Newsom also advanced.

In the women's championship division, medalist Danielle Ranallo advanced to Saturday's play, as did local favorites Stephanie Johns, Linda Johnson, Trina Rasmussen and Amanda Nealy.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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