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Mike Barry, left, and Jimmy White get yardages during the RVSP Sunday at Centennial Golf Club. They are among the favorites in this week’s Southern Oregon. - Julia Moore

Title is up for grabs in strong men's division

A quartet of players accustomed to being in the finals of the Southern Oregon Golf Championships will again vie for that position this week.

Problem is, there's room only for two.

Further, just one will be allowed to wrap his hands around the trophy that goes with winning the men's regular division, which attracts the biggest guns to the region's most prestigious tournament each year.

Mike Barry. Casey King. Jimmy White. Brooks Newsom.

They're all back for the 82nd annual tournament that begins today and continues through Labor Day.

Defending champion Barry, with his three titles in four years; King, who has made the finals the past two years, winning in 2009; White, who made it to the finals his previous two appearances, only to lose each time; and Newsom, who has triumphed twice in the past seven years.

"You have to consider them the favorites," says Jim Wise, the head professional at Rogue Valley Country Club, which hosts the event.

The tournament has a field of 384 players, up slightly from the past couple years, and is the largest single-site, match-play event in the country.

Qualifying for local men is today, while women and out-of-town players qualify Wednesday.

Match play begins Thursday, and championship matches in every flight of every division are Monday.

There are six divisions: men's regular, men's junior-senior, men's senior, men's super senior, women's regular and women's senior.

Most of the 2010 winners return to defend their crowns: Barry in the men's, Ken Stringer in the junior-senior, Kevin Klabunde in the men's senior, George Mack in the super senior and Kelly Loeb in the women's. Only Debbie Cordell in the women's senior won't be back.

The aforementioned marquee foursome is only one reason the men's division is considered to be stronger than in recent years, says Wise.

Kevin Murphy, of Rogue River, who last year as a 16-year-old shot 68 in qualifying to tie Barry, then beat Barry in a nine-hole playoff, is back after a stellar summer of junior play. And Sam Ayotte, out of Trysting Tree in Corvallis, enters with a plus-3 handicap. Ayotte played collegiately at Western Washington.

There are about a half-dozen other players with plus handicaps, says Wise, and a group of young players — the minimum age was lowered to 16 a couple years ago — will infuse the grand old event with a hint of youthful exuberance.

"I think it's good for the tournament," says Wise, who will retire at the end of the year after nearly 39 years at RVCC. "These kids can play. The idea is to get the best players out there."

An old-versus-young story line come Monday wouldn't be a bad thing, he says.

"Old age and treachery beats youth and skill once in a while," Wise laughs. "I keep telling that to my kids when I play them."

Barry and Newsom each have three men's regular championships and are bidding to tie Dick Hanen, who claimed his fourth title in 1947, for No. 2 all-time. Eddie Simmons tops the list with six.

Tommy Smith and Doug Olson also have three men's titles and are in the field again. Smith is fighting an ailing back and withdrew from the Rogue Valley Stroke Play Championships this past weekend. Olson's most recent title was in 1997; his first was in '66.

Last year, Barry, a former North Medford High state champion and Oregon State player, defeated King, who plays for the Beavers, 2 up in the finals.

Barry, 24, had a chance to become the first in history to win three straight men's championships but lost in the 2009 quarterfinals to Daniel Engle. King then defeated Engle in the finals.

"I was a little bummed when I didn't get three in a row a couple years ago," says Barry. "That would have been a little piece of history that would have been nice to have. It's a strong field, and if I'm lucky enough and play well enough, four is something I know a lot of people don't have. It would be a real honor."

King, from Blue River, had a 74.56 scoring average in 16 rounds as a junior for OSU this past year.

"It was all right," he says, "but I never really played as well as I wanted to."

Of returning to the Southern Oregon, King says, "Hopefully, I can do as well as I have the last two years and maybe get the championship trophy back again. I've got a little work to do on my game between now and then."

With the presence of White, a former Oregon player, a bit of a Civil War theme has developed.

"If I can't pull it out," says Barry, "I'd rather have one of my fellow Beavers pull it out."

White's reply? "Beavers never have a chance."

White lost to Smith in his first go-round, and in 2005 — after finishing his career at Oregon — fell in an upset to 18-year-old Brodie Sullivan.

White turned pro for three years but since has regained his amateur status. He's coming off a victory Sunday in the stroke play championships at Centennial Golf Club, beating Barry by two strokes.

"It's probably one of the best tournaments I've played in," White says of the Southern Oregon. "Everyone has a good time and everyone's out watching. The atmosphere of it is unlike any other. That's the big reason I like to play in it."

The tournament is open to spectators, and there is no admission charge.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

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