San Diego golf professional Aaron Dexheimer is used to playing in serious California mini-tour events, so he welcomes the laid-back atmosphere at the Palmer Golf Course Invitational.
"It's really relaxed and everyone is here to have a good time," he said. "It's pretty much the biggest tournament they have up here."
The annual tournament was one of the first Dexheimer, 31, competed in after turning pro seven years ago, and he doesn't keep coming back just because its fun. He also happens to have won the event three of the last four years, just missing a fourth victory when he lost in a playoff to Anchorage's Bryan Anderson two summers ago.
In contention to win the 36-hole event again after a 1-over 73 in Saturday's first round, Dexheimer is tied for sixth in a field of 21 pros who are chasing a first prize of $3,500. Ryan Hietala enters Sunday's final round in the lead after a 3-under 69.
Dexheimer's roots are in San Diego, but his golf game developed in Alaska. At 15 he played his first round of golf at Birch Ridge Golf Course in Soldotna, a nine-hole track that isn't friendly to a crooked shot. Fairways are only about 20 yards wide and there's only about 30 yards of room from tree line to tree line, Dexheimer said.
"Birch Ridge is its own little gem, the easiest, hardest course in the world," Dexheimer said. "It's not like any other course up here."
Dexheimer came to Soldotna with his father, who worked in the commercial fishing trade. His dad took him out for his first round of golf, but didn't offer any instruction beyond telling him to get the golf ball in the hole. Dexheimer learned the game without a formal teacher, and learning the game at Birch Ridge helped him develop some handy skills.
"I can play really good out of the trees," he said. "You never have a level lie there. That course makes you use your mind."
Dexheimer turned pro after completing his college golf career at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He has spent time on the Canadian Tour and Golden State Tour, and last fall made it to the second stage of the three-stage qualifying school for the PGA Tour, a tournament he will compete in again this fall.
For now, he will focus on going as low as he can at Palmer, where 84 amateurs are competing for gross and net prizes alongside the pros. With generally flat fairways that stretch to widths of 40 or 50 yards, Palmer's friendly layout makes for a fair tournament that allows amateurs to enjoy themselves, Dexheimer said.
"Usually you get to shoot low at Palmer, but not today because it's so windy," Dexheimer said. "I played really good for 12 holes and played like a hack for five. I wanted to pull my hair out, because I couldn't make a five-footer to save my life."
Three-under par through 12 holes, Dexheimer rode the bogey train for the next five before closing with a birdie. Though there are virtually no trees at Palmer, Dexheimer's second shot on the par-5 18th still managed to finish amid a cluster of birch to the left of the green. He pitched the ball through the trees to within about 10 feet of the hole and sank the putt.
Dexheimer, who will head back home to San Diego next week, still comes to Soldotna for the commercial fishing each June and July. This summer is the worst he has experienced for fishing, however, with the Kenai River being shut down due to low salmon counts.
"I didn't fish at all this summer," Dexheimer said. "I've just been hanging out doing nothing, practicing at Birch Ridge."
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
Palmer Golf Course Invitational
Professionals -- 1) Ryan Hietala, 69; 2) (tie) Rob Nelson; Bryan Anderson, 71; 4) (tie) Casey Cusack; Billy Bomar, 72; 6) (tie) Aaron Dexheimer; Jeff Lyons, 73; 8) (tie) Norm Jarvis; Rich Lundhal; James Contreras, 74; 11) (tie) Joe Butler; Bill Enberg; John McBride, 75; 14) (tie) Ryan Sparks; Nolan Rose, 76; 16) Mark Dolejsi, 77; 17) (tie) Ken Parker; Trevis Kordus, 79; 19) Travis Jorgenson, 81; 20) Brandon Kaiser, 83; 21) Jim Triplett, 91.
Amateur (top 5 gross) -- 1) Greg Sanders, 69; 2) David Hamilton, 73; 3) Marcus Dolejsi, 74; 4) Rick Townsend, 76; 5) (tie) Ross Martin; James Seal; Dond Grasse; Tim Ruf, 77.
Amateur (top 5 net) -- 1) Rick Townsend, 65; 2) James Seal, 67; 3) Rafael Legoretta, 68; 4) David Cosgrave, 68; 5) (tie) Greg Sanders; Larry Buss; Don Grasse, 69.