If Missoula Country Club golfers want to keep the Don Barnett Memorial golf tournament trophy in the family, they'll need to go through several talented out-of-towners to do it.

The 54-hole event which annually draws one of the strongest amateur fields in the state, begins Saturday at the par-71 layout on Missoula's South side. Play will begin with shotgun starts each day at 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The leaders will tee off in the late shift for Monday's final round.

MCC golfers have won the last nine titles, including four by MCC course superintendent Jon Heselwood. Heselwood opened with a 63 last year and cruised to a two-stroke win over Robb Bergeson of Billings.

Heselwood, who says he's "taking some time to recharge" his batteries, is not playing this year, but Bergeson is. If Bergeson is on top of his game, he could be the man to beat.

Bergeson, who played collegiately at the University of Washington, was the runner-up at last year's State-Amateur and won the State-Am in 1997.

"I'm real disappointed," Bergeson said when told Heselwood won't be playing. "I wanted to see if I could come back and get him."

While Heselwood was shooting his lowest competitive score in the first round last year, so was Bergeson, who opened with a 65. Bergeson won the state Class AA golf crown at MCC as a senior at Billings West and had success there in the junior ranks.

"It's pretty short, so you just have to keep it in play," said Bergeson, who married Heather Dolan - daughter of former Montana football player and assistant coach Pat Dolan - last December. "My iron game is probably the best part of my game."

Brett Bennyhoff of Great Falls, third last year but eight strokes behind Heselwood, is among the 150 or so golfers registered to play, as is Reid Lende of Livingston, fourth last year.

Lende, who played at the University of Wyoming, took a three-stroke lead into the final round of the 1999 tournament before fading with a 42 over the final nine holes.

Carrying the banner for Missoula Country Club will be Gary Koprivica, who has won two off the last four titles. MCC's Mark Nedrud, who won the 1998 title, is in Ireland - where he recently scored an ace on a 280-yard par-4 - and won't play. Dirk Cloninger won the 1992 title on his home course and tied for 11th last year.

Other MCC golfers who could make noise include reigning club champ Bob Gray, Joe Johnston, Ken Klaudt, Brian Sheridan, John Dayries, Cory Slocum, Connor Sproull (fourth at Polson's Lake City Open), and Eric Solander.

Long-hitter Dave Lawston of Missoula lost in a playoff to Nedrud in 1998 and is entered, as are fellow Larchmont golfers Dave Johnson, Chris McConnell and Gary Funston. Chris Conley, a former assistant pro at Bigfork's Eagle Bend, has had his amateur status reinstated and sports a zero handicap.

Tony Buda, formerly of Helena but living in the Portland, Ore., area, has challenged for the title and is back as is Rob Logsdon of Helena. Logsdon played for Washington State University.

Rick Kloepfer of Boise, a former Montana amateur champion, and Brad Burtness of Spokane could also challenge.

MCC pro Skip Koprivica said the course has rounded into good shape.

"I've played in several pro-ams this spring and I think our course is in terrific condition," Koprivica said. "I didn't see any other courses as good as ours."

Bergeson also praises MCC.

"Jon (Heselwood) always has those greens better than any in the state," Bergeson said.

Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or by e-mail at bmeseroll@missoulian.com.

Barnett champions

Year Winner Score
2000 Jon Hesselwood, Missoula 204
1999 Gary Koprivica, Missoula 213
1998 Mark Nedrud, Missoula 211*
1997 Gary Koprivica, Missoula 213*
1996 Colin Bork, Missoula 215
1995 Jon Hesselwood, Missoula 206
1994 Jon Hesselwood, Missoula 206
1993 Jon Hesselwood, Missoula 207
1992 Dirk Cloninger, Missoula 213
1991 Dave Morberg, Kallispell 212
1989-90 No tournament
1988 M. Combs, Kennewick, WA 211
1987 Todd Kernaghan, Great Falls 206
* Won in a playoff

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