The 88th Northern California Open, one of the state's most prestigious championships, sprints toward a fascinating finish today.
Ric Leibovich of Salinas moved into first place with a 3-under-par 69, giving him a 36-hole total of 7-under 137 at Saddle Creek near Copperopolis. Giving the tournament some spicy flavor, however, is the small army of local players chasing Leibovich.
The most surprising contender might be amateur Jamie Looper, the Oakdale High grad and frequent club champ at Oakdale Country Club. Looper, the first-day leader following a sharp 67, settled for a 71 Tuesday and is tied for second, one stroke behind the leader.
Looper shares second place with ex-Cal State Stanislaus star Ryan Thornberry of Ceres (70-68 -- 138). One stroke behind him is mini-tour regular and two-time Northern California Open champion Matt Bettencourt of Modesto (72-67 -- 139). Bettencourt won the event in 2002 and '03.
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Overall, nine of the top 20 come from the area: Ex-Stanislaus player Marc Lawless of Aptos (69-71--140, tied for sixth); Mike Cook, the head pro at Sonora's Mountain Springs (72-69 -- 141, tied for 10th); Del Rio CC's director of instruction Mitch Lowe (73-69 -- 142, tied for 16th); Saddle Creek pro Tighe Hammam (68-74 -- 142, tied for 16th); and Turlock's John Cook (73-70 -- 143, tied for 19th).
They're chasing a trophy that has been won by such golf luminaries as Tony Lema, George Archer, David Sutherland, Roger Maltbie, Bill Glasson, Jerry Heard, Lawson Little Jr. and Turlock product Joey Rassett (1985).
Elsewhere, let's muse on the golf beat:
Ric Burgess, another ex-Warrior and now the head pro at Colusa CC, won the NorCal Senior PGA Stroke Play Championship by shooting 68-67 -- 135 last week at Spring Creek CC in Ripon. The competition featured former PGA Tour pros Mick Soli of Mariners Point (68-70 -- 138, second place) and Charlie Gibson (tied for 12th). The top nine also qualified for the Senior PGA Professional National Championship next month in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Joining Burgess in their upcoming trip to Florida are Spring Creek head pro Glen Stubblefield (69-71 -- 140, tied for third) and Mike Cook (71-72 -- 143, eighth).
Too bad the Solheim Cup, conducted in terrible weather conditions in Sweden -- and much of it contested in the middle of the night for us -- didn't receive more attention. Twelve matches came down to the final hole and, unlike its Ryder Cup counterparts, Team USA performed as though the event actually mattered to them. More than 100,000 fans braved wind, cold and rain to watch the matches, which means the public's taste for sports sometimes doesn't walk lockstep with the media's.
America dominated the Sunday singles and won 16-12 with a big assist from the Northern California contingent -- Juli Inkster of Los Altos Hills (2-0-2), Sacramento-raised Natalie Gulbis (1-2), Hayward-raised Pat Hurst (2-1-1) and Pleasanton's Paula Creamer (2-0-3). All four won Sunday. Creamer is 5-1-4 for her young career in the Solheim Cup, and Morgan Pressel's 2-and-1 win over Annika Sorenstam -- on Sorenstam's home turf, no less -- affirmed her standing as the nation's next great women's player.
A postscript on Dottie Pepper's off-the-air rip about the team being "choking freaking dogs:" The Golf Channel analyst announces as she played. She's emotional, talented and mercurial, and she doesn't care how she's perceived. Note that, even after the U.S. won, she didn't back off her comments. Pepper's work in the booth and in golf magazines has stamped her as the game's next Johnny Miller. High praise.
This just in: Tiger Woods can golf his ball. It was important to him to be the first FedEx Cup champ, much like his goal to catch and overtake Jack Nicklaus' 18 victories in the majors. Woods has 61 wins, one behind Arnold Palmer, and 13 majors. At 31, he's merely entering his prime years. Only now are we acknowledging the 1,000-degree fire that burns inside him. Critics thought marriage, fatherhood or the death of his father would dull his thirst for victory. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
About the FedEx Cup: Anything that coaxes the best players out of their respective living rooms past August must be deemed successful. Still, tweaking the FedEx points system and the late-season schedule must be considered, along with another point: Allowing 144 players to begin the four-tiered event, while the top 125 are exempt for the Tour next year, cannot truly be called the "playoffs."
HOLES-IN-ONE -- John Perry, Modesto, 111-yard 13th at Jack Tone Golf, Ripon, 9-iron. ... Terry Linhares, Oakdale, 172-yard eighth at Creekside, 6-iron. ... Denny Huestis, Oakdale, 157-yard 14th at Jack Tone, 4-iron. ... Jim Shields, Copperopolis, 126-yard 11th at Saddle Creek, pitching wedge.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.