A pair of Greater Trail products put on a show at the Ogopogo Invitational Golf Tournament at the Kelowna Golf and Country Club.
Garrett Kucher fired a 5-under 67 on Saturday to overcome a two-stroke deficit and win the Ogopogo title with a 54-hole score of 6-under 210, while Rossland native Braden McKay finished eighth overall with a 3-over, 219.
Kucher, a 24-year-old professional golfer, birdied three of the last four holes to shake the sting of faltering in the final round in last year’s tournament. At the 2016 Ogopogo, Kucher set a record on the first two days of scoring, shooting rounds of 67 and 66 for a two-day total of 11-under par. However, he gave up a four-shot lead to eventual winner Matt Palahniuk by carding an uncharacteristic round of six-over 78 on the final day.
“It was huge for me to do that (win),” Kucher told the Times after returning to Trail on Sunday. “It was great. It was tough to lose (in 2016) but it was probably the best thing that happened to me for my career. It humbled me and it also made me realize how to deal with playing in front of a lot of people.”
McKay, meanwhile, played at the Ogopogo for the first time in the men’s event since graduating from junior golf, and improved steadily as the tournament wore on. Playing in tough conditions with gusting winds, the 19-year-old Birchbank Golf Course member shot a final round 1-under 71 to follow up on rounds of 76 and 72 and pull into the top-10 in a field of over 170 golfers.
“I played pretty good,” said McKay. “Before playing, I expected to play well, but it’s definitely a tournament that you need experience at that course to play well. It was a little more difficult than I thought.”
While both Kucher and McKay are from the Trail area, the two had never met until they played together in the first round of the Ogopogo, which teed up a good weekend for both golfers.
On the final day, after a triple bogie on three, Kucher trailed 2012 champion Keith Martin by five shots through eight holes. But fortunately, before the round, Kucher learned a lesson from the previous Ogopogo and stuck with his game plan.
“Last year I always knew where I stood, and had a number in my head,” said Kucher. “This year I told my caddie, (Gene Lockerby), ‘I don’t want to know the leaderboard, at all’.
“We stayed simple, we stayed with the process, and we knew if we executed we’d have a good chance.”
The former Selkirk College Saints hockey player unleashed his driver and wowed the crowd of about 200 spectators. On the difficult 441-yard 10th hole he knocked it 45 yards from the pin, on the 552 yard par-5 12th, he had 105 yards left for his second shot and on the 504 yard 16th, which was playing from a further championship tee, he had approximately 170 yards left to the green.
“Sticking with our game plan off the tee gave us lots of opportunities, and a couple (putts) were going to fall and a couple were going to stay out,” explained Kucher. “But off the tee we were flawless.”
The leader Martin, playing out of the Harvest Golf Club, was still up by two shots on the 15th tee, but a Martin bogie, coupled with birdies on the par-3 15th and par-5 16th by Kucher gave him the outright lead.
“I wasn’t thinking two on 15, and I didn’t know the score, so that’s what really benefitted me, and if I did know the score, I probably would have been more aggressive,” said Kucher. “I hit a good shot in and my putt fell. So I knew right there that coming in I had 16, a par five, and 18, a par five, both gettable in two, so I knew I was in a good position and that took a lot of the pressure off.”
Kucher made par on 17 and, coming home on 18 – still unsure of his standing – he was set to bomb another drive in search of at least a birdie and a possible eagle.
“I asked my caddie on 18 tee, ‘Give me driver,’ and he said, ‘No, you’re hitting 3-iron. You’re going to sting your 3-iron, get it on the fairway and we’re going to hit an iron shot to the middle of the green.
“I said, ‘Well we need birdie.’
“He said, ‘No you don’t.'”
Kucher hit the fairway with the 3-iron and then stuck the green on his next shot, two-putting for birdie to finish his round at 5-under and win the championship.
“I am staring at the green with all the people behind it, and I look back and there’s people all behind me and I’m thinking – just one swing, just make one swing. Now that’s living in the moment.”
The Predator Ridge golf ambassador gives a lot of the credit to caddy, Lockerby, for keeping him calm, setting a game plan, and calling the correct lines. In addition, the continued support from friends and family in Trail and Kelowna made the win even more rewarding.
The Kucher-Lockerby tandem made 34 on the front nine and 33 on the back for the low-round of the day, after firing rounds of 70 and 73 to open the tournament. Martin finished the tournament with a 54 hole total of 4-under par.
Kucher will play a tournament in Denver this week before returning to the Vancouver Golf Tour and potentially Canada’s Mackenzie Golf Tour at events in Calgary and Edmonton.
McKay, who just completed his freshman year of a golf scholarship at Wilmington University in Delaware, is gearing up for the BC Amateur Golf Championship that starts today at the Morgan Creek Golf Course in Surrey.
“I’ve played this course before, and I like the course when I played it last time, so I expect to do pretty well,” said McKay. “Right now my game’s really good.”
The top-25 qualify for the Canadian Men’s Amateur Championship in Toronto.