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Golf: Cloquet's Stafford sees success on the links

Jim Stafford hits out of the bunker behind the first hole during the Cloquet Invitational in July 2017. Duluth News Tribune file

It's not "The Legend of Bagger Vance." In a way, it's better.

Jim Stafford of Cloquet took his first job working in the bag room at Cloquet Country Club at age 13. Now, he's winding up his summer as Cloquet Invitational champion and finishing up one of the best seasons he's ever had.

"I've been playing pretty well for the last few weeks," Stafford said. "But it's been a really good summer."

Growing up, Stafford admired the game of John Sheff, who has finished runner-up at the Invitational an amazing 13 times and finished tied for third last month.

"Even though I won this year, I wish John would finally win one," Stafford admitted. "He's a great guy and someone I grew up watching."

But this year's Invitational belonged to the 2006 Esko graduate. Entering the third round of stroke play trailing Dylan Crist by three shots, Stafford fired a three-under-par 68 to take home the title, while Crist shot 80.

And believe him — the Sunday jitters are as big in the Cloquet Invitational as they are on tour, at least to those who are there.

"The first two rounds were shaky but I knew a better game was in me somewhere," Stafford said. "But yes, there are nerves involved."

Consecutive birdies on 13 and 14 gave Stafford a four-shot advantage and he was able to win by four shots over Dan Moline.

But there was more. Stafford had a chance to do the double — by winning the Invitational and the club championship in the same year. It's believed that Charlie Jensen was the only player to turn that trick, and it was over 40 years ago.

Stafford lost his second match in the event but won twice last Sunday to finish in fifth place.

And doing these things on his home course, including winning his first Invitational in 13 tries, meant a lot.

"It's the biggest event at the club," he said "As far as players coming from out of town, it's kind of what people get excited about in July, It's a staple of my summer ever since I was growing up and working at the club."

Next year, Stafford will be one of those out-of-towners.

"I've been moving around the the last five or six years and I'm moving to St. Louis Park in the fall," he said. "But I'll definitely be back."

Stafford says his tee-to-green game is durable and his iron play has helped him have a successful summer.

"That's my strength," he said. "Just keeping it in the fairway, hitting greens in regulation and being consistent."

Stafford said he'll play in the Ridgeview four-ball event and Leo Spooner best ball tournaments later this fall, but it's already been a great year.

"The club has always been special and the events I was in have always been real special to me," he said. "I'll always make the effort to come back."

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