By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – Two past Upper Peninsula golf champions went head-to-head here Thursday, and as play stopped for a heavy downpour, the momentum made a tremendous switch after play resumed to help decide the issue.
Junior Paxton Johnson of Escanaba used the 30-minute rain delay to turn her fortunes around and claim her third straight Division 1 championship, which helped the Eskymos capture their third straight team title with a 381.
Meanwhile, the delay stopped Kaaren Liston's building momentum and basically ended the Houghton senior's charge. The Gremlins finished second at 390, a stroke ahead of Menominee.
Johnson, playing at her home Escanaba Country Club course, parred the front nine and finished with an 80. Liston, who won the Division 1 title as a freshman in 2015, shot 85 to tie Escanaba's Megan Dagenais for the runner-up score.
Home course advantage was an obvious benefit for Johnson, who lives adjacent to the fourth green and plays ECC much more often than frequently. Liston's advantage was her tremendous length of the tee, many times landing 40-50 yards beyond Johnson, who also has impressive distance.
"I didn't pay attention to how far ahead she was," said Johnson, who concentrated on playing her game and the course. "My game plan was to hit the green in regulation and make some putts. I was pretty comfortable out there."
"She basically knows where she can get into trouble and has a general idea what club to hit into each hole," said Liston, who said her extra length "kind of equals that out there somewhat."
Johnson, a southpaw who won the ECC women's championship last year, downplayed her home advantage. "Most holes here are pretty straight forward, but you have to know where to hit the ball on the greens. I don't think having knowledge of the course is that big of an advantage," she concluded.
The big advantage for Johnson came down to short-game execution. She was pretty steady all day while Liston had numerous errors on approach shots or with the putter. "I got myself in a little trouble not hitting the greens," she agreed.
"I played well, better than I shot," said Liston, playing in just the fourth meet of the weather-restricted season. "My approach shots were lacking, and I had a few blowup holes. Shots 100 yards and in definitely need work."
The turning point came after the rain delay basically swamped several holes on the back nine, where Johnson, Liston and Dagenais ended their rounds. Liston came out of the delay with a double-bogey 6 on No. 12 and a three-putt triple-bogey 6 on No. 13, putting the skids on her final high school round.
"The rain delay helped Pax out," said EHS assistant coach Jake Berlinski, referring to Johnson’s double-bogey 6 on No. 10 and a bogey-4 on No. 11 that happened as dark clouds were approaching. "She was able to regroup in the clubhouse and came out ready to fire."
With the weather arriving, Berlinski encouraged Johnson to hit her approach shot to No. 12 green after her tee shot – just before the weather horn – landed shy of the creek 155 yards from the green. "That kind of got her round started again, and with Kaaren going the other way it kind of sealed the deal," he said.
"I didn't let myself get freaked out," Johnson said of her brief slump. "I played a good, solid front nine. I was a little bit frustrated, but the key was it was just one (bad) hole and there are eight more to go so I just kept playing."
Johnson's only misstep after that came on No. 15, which had several large puddles – actually more like small ponds. She had a double-bogey 6 on No. 15.
Johnson only had two legitimate birdie attempts but missed on Nos. 1 and 7, after Liston birdied No. 1. "I couldn't quite capitalize. I mis-read them a little bit," Johnson said.
"The first 3-4 holes I kept playing solid and settled in and found my groove," she added.
Playing with Liston was beneficial, she agreed. "It definitely helped playing with her. She is such a good golfer and she pushes me. She is an amazing golfer and hits the ball a mile. I love watching her because she has such a beautiful swing,” Johnson said.
"If I play my best game and she plays her best game, there is nothing I can do. I can't play defense."
Liston said her goal was to shoot in the 70s, which began after shooting 75 in a family outing Monday at Houghton’s Portage Lake Golf Course.
Dagenais, a solid No. 2 behind Johnson during the abbreviated season, was happy and sad about her final prep round. She three-putted No. 18 for a double-bogey 7 and "I missed the last putt by this much (inches on her fingers). I wanted to take second alone," she said.
"I hit a lot of greens in regulation. I wanted my team to have a better chance of winning," she added. "My irons were awesome. I was sticking the pins."
Berlinski was happy to see the girls triumph. "To walk out with that trophy right now is pretty incredible," he told three of the girls who will be returning in spring. "Having Paxton helps when you have the medalist. The other four girls played probably as good as they have all year, and at the right time."
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PHOTOS: (Top) A 20-minute downpour left large ponds of water scattered around the back nine at Escanaba Country Club during Thursday's Upper Peninsula Division 1 girls golf tournament. Tourney medalist Paxton Johnson's reflection is shown as she pushes her cart on the 14th fairway. (Middle) Johnson holds up her individual and team championship medals. (Below) Kaaren Liston of Houghton watches as her chip shot tumbles toward the hole Thursday. She tied for second. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)