Defending champion Joe Weber headlines a modern-day record Championship Flight field into the 27th annual La Crosse County Men's Amateur Golf Championships as presented by Pepsi-Cola of La Crosse this weekend.
Saturday's opening 18 rounds begin at The Golf Club at Cedar Creek in Onalaska. Sunday's final round is at Drugan's Castle Mound Country Club in Holmen.
A total of 42 Championship Flight players are entered, the most since 48 competed in 2012.
Weber is certainly among good company with the other seven top finishers from 2016 also returning.
"This year's field is loaded, I mean really loaded," said Bob Lamb, longtime tournament director. These guys can play. If you're a golf fan and you enjoy the very best amateur golf in western Wisconsin, you certainly want to be here both days."
Weber, a dentist in West Salem, captured the coveted 2016 County Amateur Men's Golf Championship, but not without another climactic ending to the historic tournament which began in 1932.
Weber stepped up to the ninth tee with a commanding seven-shot lead in the final round at Castle Mound on Sunday.
With only 10 holes to play, Weber appeared a "shoo-in" for his first monogrammed County Am sport coat, $500 gift certificate, Championship Flight plaque and traveling trophy.
However, Weber's smiles turned to looks of deep concern beginning with a double bogey on the ninth hole. He still had a five-shot cushion entering the final nine holes, but three straight bogeys saw his lead evaporate to only two shots. By the time he reached the 17th tee, he was one shot behind 20-year-old Drew Schroeder of Holmen.
Yet, Weber saved his best for last. While Schroeder's bogey on the 18th hole dropped him into a tie with Weber, it was short-lived as Weber hit a hybrid club off the tee, followed by the "shot of the tournament," an 8-iron from 174 yards to no more than four feet past the cup on the tricky 18th green. His putt hit the back of the cup and dropped in, sealing his first County Am title.
Weber, who posted a 2-under par 69 at The Golf Club at Cedar Creek in Onalaska on Saturday, finished with a 3-over 75 at Castle Mound for a 144, 36-hole total. Schroeder, a member of the Viterbo University men's golf team, shot the best round of the day with 70, and finished at 145.
Weber, a member at the La Crosse Country Club in Onalaska, became the first Country Club player to win the title since 1996 when Eric Haug won his second County Am championship.
Weber, obviously, is looking forward to this weekend's 36-hole event, but acknowledges a repeat title won't be easy.
"I haven't been playing well. It's life stuff," he said. "We have a child getting older and another one on the way. I'm not as sharp as last year."
However, Weber was quick to add that if he plays his own game, he will be OK.
Cedar Creek is more adaptable to Weber's game, he said, adding he just feels more comfortable there rather than at Drugan's.
"Nine has always been a nemesis for me," he said of Castle Mound's ninth hole, previously a par-4 with a severe dogleg to the right. However, it was changed to a par-3 this spring.
"I'm going to be very excited about not hitting a tee shot there," said Weber, who has yet to play either tournament course this year.
"For some reason, Cedar hits my eye better. It's a harder golf course that suits me a little better," he said.
Weber knows all too well the players who will challenge him. Guys like seven-time champion Paul Williamson, Schroeder, Josh Dirks, Jake Dunn, Tom McClintock, Tyler Church, Ben Skogen, Connor Frawley, James DeBoer, in addition to past champs Eric Haug, Michael Drugan and Brian Banasik. The list goes on and on.
You can bet Weber is also looking over his shoulder at the weather forecast.
"I'll be interested to see what the weather is. If there's no rain, the scores will be lower because it will we cooler," he said. "When it's hotter, it's more difficult to score.
"If the rain holds off, it may take 3 or 4 under to win. Otherwise, maybe it will be a little over," he added. "But there are so many good players. There are six or more guys who can shoot 66 or lower."
A total of 95 players entered this year, four more than a year ago.
2017 LA CROSSE COUNTY MEN'S GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP
AS PRESENTED BY PEPSI-COLA OF LA CROSSE
Saturday's First-Round Pairings
At The Golf Club at Cedar Creek
In Onalaska, WI
Men's Fourth Flight - 10th Tee
Men's Third Flight - First Tee
Daniel M. Breeden
Men's Second Flight - 10th Tee
Men's First Flight - 10th Tee
Men's Championship Flight - First Tee