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Grand Rapids man competes in longest drive competition, advances

A broken golf club left Luke Lehtinen in a predicament when facing some big hitters. The former Duluth Marshall athlete had to find a replacement with one round remaining Sept. 8 in a district final of the Re-Max Long Drive Championship in Rockfo...

A broken golf club left Luke Lehtinen in a predicament when facing some big hitters.

The former Duluth Marshall athlete had to find a replacement with one round remaining Sept. 8 in a district final of the Re-Max Long Drive Championship in Rockford, Ill.

Lehtinen, 20, whose club head had shattered in the previous round, was rescued by a representative of Alpha Golf. He had about 15 minutes on a driving range to get comfortable with a loaner, and then came up just one yard short of advancing to the Re-Max World Long Drive Championship.

"I've always hit the ball a ways and I figured, 'Why not try out for this,' '' Lehtinen said last week. "I'm not ever going out on the PGA Tour or anything, but this is something fun where you hit the driver as hard as you want.''

Craig Krause of Louisville, Ky., won the four-state district title with a drive of 316 yards at the Golf Shack in Rockford, and while Lehtinen, at 292, wasn't among the five qualifiers, another Northlander made the cut -- former Minnesota high school champion and one-time NHL winger Jeff Nielsen of Grand Rapids.

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Nielsen, 36, finished third at 305 in his first attempt in a long-drive competition. Approximately 4,300 players began at the local level, according to Long Drivers of America, and 128 will compete in the men's finals Oct. 22-27 at Palms Golf Club in Mesquite, Nev., about 70 miles north of Las Vegas. There's a purse of $550,000, with $125,000 going to the winner.

"My buddies have always given me grief that I can hit the ball a mile, but never know where it's going. I had no idea how I would do in the first two stages, and I have no idea how I'll fit in with the big boys,'' said Nielsen. "Maybe I'll have a chance, maybe not. I'm looking forward to seeing all the best long-hitters in the world, like Jason Zuback.''

Zuback, 37, of Calgary, Alberta, has won the Re-Max World Long Drive Championship five times, including last year with a drive of 368. The longest drive in district competition this year was 430 yards by John Lawson of Napa, Calif., recorded at the finals site in Mesquite. Nielsen drove 378 at Meadows Golf Course in Moorhead, Minn., in winning a local qualifying tournament, a step before districts. He'll take a couple of $400 Krank drivers with him to Mesquite.

Lehtinen, the youngest among 52 district entrants, had the fourth-longest drive of the day at 325, in a preliminary round, and figures he's reached 380 yards downhill with the wind at Two Harbors Golf Course. He uses 49 to 50-inch long-drive clubs that he puts together himself using a Bang-O-Matic head and Accuflex shaft costing about $50 total.

Lehtinen was a junior on the 2004 Marshall team that won the Minnesota Class A title and tied for sixth individually in Class A as a senior in 2005. He's a junior at Purdue University, majoring in building construction management, but didn't try out for the golf team.

His family lived in Two Harbors during his high school years, but is now in Gilbert. Lehtinen plays at Eshquaguma Country Club in Gilbert or Giants Ridge in Biwabik.

"For three weeks before the long-drive contest, I was hitting on the range, but the fences at Eshquaguma are at 290 yards and I was hitting balls over the fence and into the woods. Theydidn't like that,'' said Lehtinen, who took part in a Pinnacle Long Drive contest last year in Laughlin, Nev.

Nielsen won the 1988 Minnesota Class AA individual title and played golf and hockey at the University of Minnesota. He was in the NHL for four seasons, playing in 252 games, before retiring in 2001.

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For about seven months in 2002, he seriously pursued golf on a tour in California. It didn't work out.

"Instead of traveling with your friends on a hockey team and staying in four-star hotels, I was traveling by myself and staying in a Motel 6,'' said Nielsen, now a land salesman for Cabela's Trophy Properties. "I wasn't 24 anymore and it would've been years before I'd make any breakthrough. My heart wasn't in it.''

Nielsen still plays golf at least once a week and is a member at Pokegama Golf Course in Grand Rapids, where he has a plus-3 handicap.

KEVIN PATES can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5306 or by e-mail at kpates@duluthnews.com .

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