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Murphy ready for city, SOGC tournaments

The valley’s championship golf season is at hand and, for men’s title hopefuls, here’s a thought more petrifying than Medusa’s hair: Kevin Murphy’s game might be as rock-solid as ever.

“I feel like I’m better than I have been in the last three years,” says Murphy, who begins play in the Rogue Valley Stroke Play Championships today at Centennial Golf Club, then turns to the Southern Oregon Golf Championships next week at Rogue Valley Country Club, where he’ll attempt to continue his record victory streak in the men’s regular division.

The 20-year-old from Rogue River, who will begin his sophomore season as one of Oregon State’s best players immediately after the SOGC, has motivation, too. He wants to go low to build confidence as he gets ready to resume collegiate play, and he’d like to win both the stroke play, or city, tournament and the SOGC in the same year.

This is only the third time he’s entered the city. He lost in a three-way playoff two years ago to Brandon Taylor, and last year tied for third as Dylan Wu blitzed the field, winning by six shots over runner-up Jimmy White. Murphy and Mike Barry were another stroke back.

The two-day city tourney ends Sunday. Two sun rises later, the first day of qualifying for the SOGC commences. The 85th edition of the venerable tournament — the largest single-site match-play event in the U.S. — ends with finals in all divisions and flights on Labor Day.

Murphy’s path in the city doesn’t appear as strenuous as it was the past two years. Neither Wu, who is out of town, nor 2011 winner White, who has a work conflict, are entered.

That leaves Murphy and Barry as the prohibitive favorites. But, said Chris Daggitt, tournament director at Centennial, there are others who can shoot even par or better who could challenge: Mark Wilson Jr., Alex Street, J.T. Compher and Jake Quast among them.

Champions in the other divisions are back to defend, including Christina Phelps in the women’s, Mark Wilson Sr. in the men’s senior and Dick Brekke in the men’s super senior. A men’s junior-senior division was added this year for ages 40-54.

In particular, the women’s division enjoyed an uptick this year, with 20 entries, or double last year’s total. There’s a full field of 145 players.

Phillips will get challenges from Terry Levis, of Gilroy, Calif., who won the SOGC last year; Kelly Loeb, a scratch player from Tucson, Ariz., who has two SOGC titles under her belt; and Kathy Kolar, a 4 handicap.

“There will be some good competition in the ladies division, which we haven’t had in a few years, so that’s a good thing,” said Daggitt.

No sooner will the city event be done than the SOGC will gear up.

It, too, will enjoy a full field, 416 players, and all of its defending champions are back. In addition to Murphy, Don Gorman returns in the men’s junior-senior and will try to be the first to claim three straight titles in that division since George Mack Sr. won his fourth in a row in 1988.

Wilson Sr. is going for three consecutive men’s senior titles. Other returning champions are Bob Maentz in the men’s super senior, Levis in the women’s and Claudia Robbs in the women’s senior.

Murphy will be the focal point for many.

Last year, he became the first player to win the men’s regular division three straight years. Two years before that, he was the division’s youngest champion at 17.

Before Murphy broke through last year, players had won consecutive men’s regular titles nine times — Dick Hanen did it twice in the 1940s — only to find the third wasn’t the charm.

Now Murphy is trying for four.

“It would be huge,” said Tracy Snyder, head pro at RVCC, “especially in match play. There’s plenty of other people capable who can play with Kevin in match play, so to do four in row would be pretty impressive. It’ll be hard, but until someone knocks you off ...”

The string could continue to grow. Murphy enjoys the SOGC too much to go elsewhere. There’s a tournament in California at the same time with a lot of top collegians, but Murphy prefers staying close to home.

“The reason I wanted to stay here is, I like all the support and all the people around here,” he said. “It’s kind of nice and it’s always fun. It’s really nice for me to have a more relaxing tournament with all the evening events. It’s something really fun before I go back to college.”

He figures he’ll play about 20 big tournaments a year with the Beavers and in summer events.

In the early part of the summer, Murphy’s game was streaky, he said. He made a couple swing changes he didn’t want to attempt during the school year. He made his swing more shallow with short irons, trying for a more repeatable approach, and he lengthened his backswing with his driver to foster a sweeping approach with a higher ball flight and less spin.

There were some errant shots, he admitted, “but it got better as time went on and I got the hang of it a little more.

“I feel like I can play good at any course right now. Any course I don’t know, my game would more easily hold up.”

His chief challengers will be familiar — two of last year’s other three semifinalists, Ryan Hawkins and White. Missing is Brooks Newsom, a three-time champion.

Barry will also play. He lost in the quarterfinals a year ago to Hawkins.

Murphy defeated Hawkins in the 36-hole final, 6 and 5.

Despite his success, Murphy isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s had to rally a time or two in the SOGC.

“With match play, you can never be stress free,” he said. “You kind of have to expect (your opponent) to do really well. It keeps you on your toes. You can’t expect to win easily or you’ll get yourself in trouble.”

Qualifying Tuesday is for local men. On Wednesday, out-of-town men and all women qualify. Matches begin Thursday.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com