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Byles family scores again at Junior Masters

Yaroslav Merkulov has likely established something of a grudge for the Byles family.

In 2006, John Byles beat Penfield's Merkulov to win the silver flight at the International Junior Masters. Thursday, John's younger brother, Daley, 16, stole the victory from Merkulov, 15, in the same tournament at East Aurora Country Club to advance to this morning's championship flight semifinals.

After being up two holes with three to play, Byles missed a 10-foot putt on the 16th, which could have given him the win, as Merkulov birdied. The two halved 17, both missing short putts, before Merkulov tied it on 18, sinking a 15-footer for par.

"I think the nerves got to me," said Byles, of Quebec. "I knew he could have won it at the end, taken it out from underneath my feet."

Perhaps Byles' mother, Karen, jinxed the last few holes. As she walked the length of the 16th fairway, she observed, with a smile, "When you're on, you're on, eh?"

The twosome headed back to the first hole, which Merkulov had won over Byles to kick off their round, for a playoff. Both hit similar drives off the tee, but Merkulov's second shot went astray, hitting the cart path to the right of the hole. Byles three-putted for a bogey, and the win.

Byles' mother said her son has already surpassed her expectations, especially after failing to be chosen for the field last summer.

"It's a really hard tournament to get into, and they try to save the spots for the older boys because they're kicking off and going forward. That's why it's a big deal that he got in," she said. "We didn't dream he'd be in the championship flight when we came here, so everything is gravy now."

The pair was tied through the front nine, but Byles pulled away with a two-hole advantage on holes 10 through 13, a stretch of the course a tournament official called "Amen Corner," after the famous stretch of tough holes at Augusta National.

The most considerable difference between the duo's games was the composure each kept when hitting literal and figurative rough patches. Merkulov's emotions had him hitting the ground with clubs and sitting with his head in his hands when Byles teed off.

"I just kept whistling at myself today," Byles said. "And I sort of found it amusing, him doing all that stuff, and it kept me in a good mood."

Byles' round against Merkulov was the second of his day that took 19 holes to determine a winner. He beat another 15-year-old in Enrique Pablo Livas earlier. Merkulov, on the other hand, entered the quarterfinals much more well-rested, having beaten Jeb Buchanan, 7 and 6. Before being eliminated, Merkulov was the top-seeded competitor left in the field after No. 1 seed Joulien Goulet fell to the championship consolation flight with a loss Wednesday.

Whoever won the match between Byles and Merkulov was destined to be the youngest competitor in the semifinal field of 17-year-olds. Byles will face Horseheads native Jamie Sindelar, who beat Grant Martens, 1 up. The other semifinal will pair Ryan Terdik, of Mt. Pleasant, Ont., against Colby Smith of Auburn, Calif. Terdik won, 3 and 2, against Carlos Ortiz, while Smith beat out Mexican Juan Pablo Hernandez.

e-mail: jfriedman@buffnews.com

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