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You want to know who the favorites are in the 69th Don Barnett Memorial golf tournament this weekend at Missoula Country Club?

Ask MCC pro Skip Koprivica. Most of them play at his course.

Missoula Country Club golfers have won 10 of the last 11 Barnetts, including Dirk Cloninger's second championship last year.

Cloninger will begin defense of his title in the 54-hole tournament on Saturday against a full field of 200 that includes 28 golfers with a 1 handicap or better. It's the first full field in six years for one of the most prestigious amateur tournaments in the state.

Included in the total is a women's flight of 16 golfers, the biggest field ever for the women.

"It's neat that we have so many good ladies," Koprivica said.

MCC's Cindy Reimers is the defending champ, but she'll face stiff challenges from Spokane's Lisette Fey Carter, a scratch golfer, and Helena's Darah Newell, who sports a 4 handicap.

Cloninger, vice president of Washington Corporation whose current project is the Phantom Hills sub-division and golf course, opened with rounds of 68 and 67 on MCC's par-71, 6,542-yard tree-lined layout last year. He held off fellow MCC members Gary Koprivica and Bob Gray despite a closing 77.

Cloninger, whose previous Barnett title came in 1992, went on to win the MCC club championship, then tied for fifth in the Montana Mid-Am, which was held at MCC last year.

"That has a lot to do with your success, when you can play on your home course," Cloninger said. "I'd like to travel a little bit better this year."

Skip Koprivica said Cloninger's strength is from tee to green.

"I generally hit the ball consistently from round to round," Cloninger said. "Usually when I score better it's when I have my short game going."

A list of challengers has to start with Gary Koprivica, who won the Mid-Am last year on his home course. Koprivica, who last won the Barnett in 1999, lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Senior Amateur last October, earning an exemption into this year's tournament. Last August, Koprivica placed eighth in the British Senior Amateur and will play in that tournament again this year.

"I played with him last Sunday and he hit the ball as good as he's ever hit it," said brother Skip.

MCC's Joe Johnston, who finished one shot behind Koprivica in last year's Mid-Am, is another likely contender.

Lefty Chris McConnell, who plays out of Larchmont golf course, has the lowest handicap in the field at plus-2. Another Larchmont golfer, Dave Johnson, is among a group at plus-1 that includes Connor Sproull, Marcus Williams, Adam Hober, Cloninger and Koprivica of Missoula; Bill Leach of Bozeman; Reid Lende of Livingston; and Texan Craig Hurlbert.

Koprivica said the course is in good shape, although the scenic 17th hole, a par-3 off an elevated tee facing the Bitterroot River, is being reconstructed along with the driving range, which is closed. Golfers will play a temporary hole, a short par-3 sandwiched between No. 15 and No. 17, instead.

When completed, No. 17 will have a small pond to the right, a larger pond to the left, and the front portion of the green will be leveled.

The tournament, which concludes Monday, begins with a shotgun start Saturday at 8 a.m. Another shift will tee off at 1:30 p.m. The leaders will tee off in the morning shift on Sunday and the afternoon shift on Monday.

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

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