By Nick Hunter
MAPLEWOOD, Minn. – Getting off to an ideal start with an eagle on the opening hole Tuesday, professional Russ Simenson fired a round of 5-under 67 to take the opening-round lead of the 37th Minnesota Senior Open at Keller Golf Course.
Simenson’s card also included five birdies against two bogeys during his front nine before playing his final nine holes in even par to take a one-stroke advantage over fellow professional Mike Barge into Wednesday’s final round.
“I had it going and was hitting the ball really well today,” Simenson said Tuesday. “It’s so hard to keep that momentum going. I really felt grooved the first nine holes and couldn’t dial it in on the back, but pars were fine. I hung in there and even par was good on the front.”
Beginning the opening round on the 10th tee Tuesday, Simenson hit a 6-iron to 15 feet and sank his eagle putt before rolling in a 4-footer for birdie at the 12th to get off to a sizzling start. A three-putt bogey at the hampered his hot start and he would follow it with a second straight bogey at the 14th before rattling off four consecutive birdies, highlighted by a 50-foot putt at the 17th, closing out his front nine at 5-under.
Simenson’s greenside bunker shot flew the third green leading to his third bogey of the opening round Tuesday, but he would answer by rolling in one final birdie at the par-4 seventh to card a 5-under 67, taking the first-round lead.
“I just wanted to come and play golf—it’s been so many years. I figured I could shoot really low or really high,” Simenson said. “I haven’t really played anything in about a decade and I’ve missed it.”
Simenson claimed the Minnesota State Junior Boys’ Championship in 1987 at Tartan Park Golf Course before being a part of two team titles when Bemidji High School won four straight Class AA championships from 1988-1991. He currently works as the head professional at Castle Highlands Golf Course in Bemidji.
Winner of the 2005 championship at Pebble Creek Golf Club, Barge played his first 11 holes in even par Tuesday before finding his stride and carding four birdies over his final seven holes to post a 4-under 68 to sit one shot back.
Barge notched five top-10 finishes in 2020, including his 10th-place finish at last year’s Senior Open at Keller where he shot a final-round 74. The 64-year-old is looking for his first win since claiming the 2019 Minnesota Senior PGA Professional Championship at Minnewaska Golf Club.
Jim Lehman, a four-time Minnesota Golf Association Senior Amateur champion, fired a bogey-free 69 Tuesday and will begin Wednesday’s final round tied for third with two-time defending champion Don Berry.
“I played really solid—no bogeys. That’s always a rarity,” Lehman joked Tuesday. “It was a lot of fairways and greens and I made three putts for birdie. I made a couple nice putts to save par on the front nine from about six feet or so to keep my positive mojo going.”
Lehman rolled in an 8-footer for birdie at the ninth to turn in 1-under before wedging his approach inside of eight feet at the 11th and converted his second birdie of the round. His final birdie came at the 14th, rolling in a 6-footer on his way to a round of 69.
Berry, a seven-time winner of the event, played his first 11 holes in even par Tuesday before rolling in a trio of birdie chances over his final seven holes to jump into a share of third with Lehman at 69.
Winning four straight championships beginning in 2012, Berry captured his fifth title in 2017 at Baker National Golf Course. In 2019 Berry outlasted Steve Whittaker in a marathon five-hole playoff at The Jewel Golf Club to claim his sixth title and it took extra holes once again to edge Dale Jones a year ago at Keller Golf Course.
Tee times for the final round of the 37th Minnesota Senior Open are slated to begin at 8 a.m. at Keller Golf Course.
THE 37TH MINNESOTA SENIOR OPEN
KELLER GOLF COURSE
6,676 YARDS, PAR 72
TUESDAY’S FIRST ROUND RESULTS
1. Russ Simenson (p), Castle Highlands GC, 35-32—67
2. Mike Barge (p), Hazeltine Nat’l GC, 35-33—68
T3. Jim Lehman, Windsong Farm, 34-35—69
T3. Don Berry (p), Edinburgh USA, 35-34—69
T5. Dave Podas (p), Bel-Air CC, 34-36—70
T5. Joel B. Johnson, The Links at Northfork, 35-35—70
T7. Tom Whaley, Minneapolis GC, 35-36—71
T7. John Anderson, Bunker Hills GC, 32-39—71
T7. Bump Werness (p), Golf Galaxy, 31-40—71
T7. Mario Tiziani (p), Chaska TC, 35-36—71
T7. Derek Stendahl (p), Rush Creek GC, 34-37—71
T7. Paul Schubring, Bent Creek GC, 33-38—71
For complete tournament results go to: https://mnpga.bluegolf.com/bluegolf/mnpga21/event/mnpga2129/contest/5/leaderboard.htm