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Locals take a shot in Junior Masters

They travel from all over the globe to participate in the International Junior Masters at East Aurora Country Club. They come from Mexico and Colombia. From Western Canada and Southern Ontario. From Spain and South Africa. And a good number of them hail from Western New York.

What they have in common are golf games that most people would envy and a desire to return home with the Merritt Trophy named in honor of tournament founder H.R. "Renny" Merritt. The winner will be the one out of 78 who finishes in the top 32 after 36 holes of medal play and survives five tests in match-play through four days of competition among players 14-18 years old.

"We think the top 20 are stronger this year than the last several years," said tournament director Paul O'Brien.

Matt Moucharafieh of Beirut would have been among the favorites but injury forced him to withdraw 10 days before the tournament. Moucharafieh won the Hank Haney Invitational in December and has six top 10s on the International Junior Golf Tour since September.

Talent still abounds:

* Michael Hong of Fullerton, Calif., was the IJGT Player of the Year in 2010.

* Matt Lemay of Waterloo, Ont., made the semifinals here last year at age 14.

* Matt Van Niekirk of Rochester, a native of South Africa, finished runner-up in the New York State high school championship in a heartbreaking ending.

* Matt Speyer of Cambridge, Ont., qualified for the Canadian Men's Amateur.

* A contender or two has a tendency to arise out of the Colombian and Mexican contingents.

Western New York went from 1984 (Orchard Park's Tim Straub, now the golf coach at Davidson) to 2006 (Matt Stasiak of Clarence/Miami, Ohio) without capturing the championship. But now two of the last five titlists have come from native territory after Orchard Park's Jonathan Clark (Canisius College) triumphed in his final year of eligibility. Among the locals who could take a run at the Merritt Trophy are:

* James Blackwell of North Tonawanda, the first-round leader and second-round trileader in last year's Buffalo District Individual and winner of the IJGT event at Heritage Hills.

* Sean Mahon of East Amherst, winner of the ECICs and a sixth-place finisher at the states.

* Mike Boss of Lewiston, medalist at the Section VI state qualifier.

* Austin Nowak of Lancaster, an IJM quarterfinalist last year (he was beaten by Lemay).

* Andrew Romano of Depew, another IJM veteran and 15th at the states.

Also notable:

* Greg Sibick of Williamsville, who tied for third at the Section VI state qualifier at age 14.

* Trevor Sluman, nephew of PGA and Champions Tour member Jeff Sluman.

The tournament begins Tuesday with 18 holes of medal play. The final round of medal play and the first round of championship flight match play will be conducted Wednesday. Match play continues with rounds Thursday and Friday morning and afternoon. The title match begins about 2 p.m. Friday.

Admission to the event is free and the clubhouse is open to the public.


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