By Dennis Grall
For the Daily News
ESCANABA - Mike Nagy hopes to continue a recent trend when he plays in the 99th annual Upper Peninsula Golf Association tournament this week at Indian Lake Golf and Country Club.
The Manistique golfer is considered the favorite on his home course, and if he comes through he would be the fourth straight golfer to win the title at home. The tournament begins at 9 a.m. Thursday for the field of 104 players, with two days of qualifying setting the flights for the final two days.
Nagy is a sophomore on the University of Tennessee golf team and played in the NCAA tournament this spring, tying for 136th place. Nagy, who averaged 74.81 in 10 tournaments at Tennessee, is a four-time men's champion at Indian Lake and holds the course record with a sizzling 12-under 60 in 2011.
Nagy also won the Highland Open last month, beating Chris Rhoades of Marquette in a playoff for his second title in that event.
"Nagy is playing great. He knows every single blade of grass here," said UPGA co-director Rob Ryan of Manistique, who is also a likely title contender. "I would be surprised if anyone challenges him."
Seven former champions will be among those trying to end that string of hometown champs, including Matt Smith of Escanaba, who won the title with 17-over-par 305 in 2004 when Indian Lake and Munising PIctured Rocks shared host duties and everyone played two rounds at each course.
The two-host format ran from 1992-2007 and drew as many as 432 players to Iron Mountain Pine Grove and Norway Oak Crest in 1998 to just 155 at Pickford Munoscong and The Oaks at Kincheloe in 2007.
The 104 players entered this year is one more than played at Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. in 2010. The largest field since returning to the one-course format was 192 players last year at Iron Mountain Pine Grove and 185 players in 2009 at Oak Crest.
Defending champion Jim Markell of Pine Grove will be on hand along with five-time champion Scott Erickson of Marquette, four-time champion Mike Thomsen of Menominee, two-time champion Mark Clements of Ishpeming Wawonwin, Tim Drees of Menominee Riverside and Jon Ellis of Pine Grove.
There are about a dozen entrants with handicaps of 0-2, including such challengers as Joey Collard of Menominee Riverside and University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Tim Kramer and Steve Schmidt of Riverside, Patrick Sweeney of St. Ignace, Darren Niemi of Houghton Portage Lake, Gary Sharp of Sault Ste. Marie and Scott Lancour of Escanaba.
"Nagy is the favorite," said Markell. "You are pulling for young guys like that. It will be fun to watch him."
Nagy entered the UPGA after failing to qualify for the U.S. Amateur recently at Bay City, when he shot 73-74. He will leave for school Monday, and the Vols open their fall tourney schedule Sept. 6 in Dalton, Ga.
"It definitely would be nice to win it before heading off to school," said the soft-spoken Nagy. He does not feel any pressure, noting "I'm confident I know the course. I know where you can miss and not miss it. And knowing the greens helps."
Markell played a practice round recently at Indian Lake and noted "there are a lot of tricky greens, a lot like Pine Grove."
He is eager to begin his title defense and said playing with such young standouts like twin brothers Dan and Dave Ellis and Drees last year was beneficial. He will be paired with Nagy for the opening two rounds, along with Clements and Tom LaVigne of Pine Grove.
"It doesn't intimidate me when they hit long shots," said Markell, who averages about 250 yards off the tee.
Winning the title last year was a thrill, and vindicated his playing talents after winning several club championships over the years.
"You know deep down you can play golf," he said. "That gave me some confidence that I can compete with the younger guys across the U.P. It (winning the UPGA) still hasn't hit home. What a high that was. It made me realize I can play golf with these guys.
"This year I will hopefully put up a good show. I don't have real high hopes, but I'm not going to shoot myself out of it."
Markell, the 1997 runner-up to Clements, finished four strokes ahead of Dan Ellis last year with 286. "I kept wondering when they were going to catch me," he said of holding a two-stroke lead entering the final round. "I was surprised that I hung in all day and extended the lead."
Markell and LaVigne were part of the winning fivesome at the pro-am at Sweetgrass Golf Club during the recent Symetra Tour event. Playing with pro Cyd Clanton, they shot 16-under 56.