Loken ‘three-peats’ at Classic

If last year was any indication, it was that the annual Kitchen Creek Classic last weekend once again would come down to a battle between two-time defending champ Aaron Loken and local standout Greg Ward.
That’s exactly what happened–and once again it was Loken who prevailed by one stroke.
For the second-straight year, the 22-year-old International Falls native carded an even-par 144 (72-72) to catch and beat first-round leader Greg Ward (71-74) by one shot enroute to his third-straight “Classic” crown.
Like last year, the two were in contention right until the very last hole.
Loken held a one-stroke lead as they teed off on the par-four 18th but hooked his ball into the left bunker, leaving Ward an opening to tie it up.
After Ward landed his second shot on the green, Loken looped a 20-foot setup out of the sand before proceeding to land his third shot 10 feet from the pin.
Ward still had a chance to send the contest to extra holes but missed a 20-foot birdie putt and settled for par, leaving Loken the long putt for the title.
“It was just a bad swing, and a bad shot,” Loken said of his scary experience on the final hole. “I was right inside the lip so I had to hit it out.
“I was happy with the result.”
Despite losing, Ward was full of praise for his cross-border rival whom he has finished behind for two-straight years.
“I knew he was starting to roll and there wasn’t going to be much stopping him,” said Ward, 23. “He didn’t panic on 18. He hit that shot out of the bunker after only advancing it 20 feet.
“He put things basically into his own hands. That was, by far, under the given pressure, the best putt I’ve ever seen,” he added.
Ward also was not kicking himself over losing a two-shot lead entering #12.
“I didn’t feel I lost the lead,” he said. “[Shooting a] 74 in the wind and having not played that much lately or not that well, I’m not that disappointed with that score.
“But that was an unbelievable performance by Aaron.”
Ward said the turning point came on the par-four 14th when the two were deadlocked. Ward sent his second shot into the lower right bush area and ended up settling for a double-bogey six to surrender the lead to Loken, who made par after making birdies on #12 and #13.
“After I made the birdie on #12, that got me within one and I was kind of fired up then,” recalled Loken.
“I just hit a bad shot on 14 and that pretty much hurt me,” added Ward. “That’s a two-shot swing while he birdies 12 and 13 [and] I go par, par.
“Four shots in three holes is a pretty substantial swing.”
Ward’s woes continued on #16 when he found himself amid the trees once again. This time, he belted a tight shot that just skimmed the green to recover for par.
He made par again at #17 after Loken bogeyed to cut the lead to one heading to the 18th tee.
Red Lake’s Shane Mann had shot a 71 on Saturday for a share of the first-round lead with Ward but crumbled on the front nine Sunday when he bogeyed three times and quadruple-bogeyed the par-five sixth.
He finished the final round with an 82.
Not to be outdone was Brian Beers of Fort Frances, who fired an even-par 72 on Sunday after opening with a three-over 75 on Saturday to finish in third place.
“I usually par #17 and #18,” Beers said. “But I never parred any of them all weekend. I couldn’t finish my rounds.”
Beers said he has played regularly with Loken over in the Falls and with Ward here. He said he was impressed at how cool Loken stayed during the last holes.
“Nothing gets to him. He does what he has to do,” said Beers. “I think Greg is the same way but Aaron’s just had the best of him lately.”
Several golfers who followed the leaders over their last nine holes agreed with Beers, taking notice at how cool and collected Loken remained. But afterwards, he had no trouble confessing how he actually felt.
“On the outside, I am [calm], but on the inside, I’m just as nervous as anyone else,” Loken admitted. “I try to stay in control when I can.”
Loken, a third-year student at Texas Lutheran University and member of its golf team, has had some memorable runs at this tournament. He won his first title in 1999 with the dreaded asterisk because the second round was rained out.
Then last year, he caught and passed Ward after shooting a four-under 68 on the second day.
He also is the first “three-peat” champion since Atikoken native Gareth Payne’s 1995-1997 run.
It’s been seven years since a Fort golfer won this event and Ward, a three-time Memorial and Kitchen Creek club champ, admitted he was looking to improve on the hometowners’ performance at this event.
“I’ve come in second the past two and I would like to bring the title back home,” he said. “I know this club is very supportive of me. I would like to give something back which would have been this championship.”