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Jon Miller of Fargo tees off on the par five 12th hole during his Thursday match against defending champion Connor Holland. Miller won the match 1 up. Photo by - Brian Basham

Number one no more

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The paths to the first round of the Pine to Palm match play were on two entirely different levels for each of defending champion Connor Holland and challenger Jon Miller of Fargo.

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For Holland, a relaxing two days of qualifying were had after gaining the exemption from his 2011 championship.

Meanwhile for Miller, he had to scratch and claw to even nab the final spot into the field of 64.

But by the end of Thursday's first round action, it was Miller's feistiness which prevailed, as Holland becomes the second-consecutive defending champion to fall in the first round, after losing 1-up.

"I never came in feeling like an underdog," Miller said. "I had a lot of solid shots. Although I wasn't putting very well today, I lived to see another day."

Miller was even in danger of not making the final qualifying cut of 147 Wednesday, which is a full four strokes lower than last year's 151.

After shooting a four-over par 75 for his first day of qualifying, Miller knew he was going to have to shoot around par to slip into bracket play.

He needed an amazing punch shot out of the 18th rough to save par and his 147, then Miller had to endure an 11-player playoff for the final six spots.

The former North Dakota State University golfer finally earned the No. 64 seed on the sixth playoff hole to set up his showdown with Holland.

"I know this course very well and I've played in this tournament for many years and only missed qualifying for it once or twice," Miller said. "So I was confident heading into match play."

But once again, Miller needed to dig deep and pull himself out of a hole with some strong late-round play.

Down three to Holland heading into the 12th hole, Miller started finding his swing, while Holland's started to malfunction.

The defending champion found himself in the trees on hole 12, where Miller made par to carve the deficit to two holes.

The former Bison golfer made birdie on 13, while Holland found the trees again on 15 to tie the match up.

"I just hung around and I found something in my swing during the 12th hole," Miller said. "I started hitting some good shots and ended up hitting 16 of 18 greens to keep pressure on him."

Miller gained his first lead with a par on 17, while Holland was stuck with bogey.

The duo halved 18, after Miller stuck his approach shot within six feet of the cup and sealed it with a two-putt.

"Normally I'm pretty conservative, but after he made birdie on the first hole and eagle on five, I starting hitting more with my driver," Miller said. "I also hit a long 30-foot putt on 13 to really give me some momentum."

Miller shot one-under par for the day, thus proving not making mistakes is a key in match play.

"My putting and mental game are my strengths, you just can't give shots away," Miller said. "After that, anything can happen."

What didn't happen was the second consecutive year that each the defending champion and medalist lost in the first round.

Medalist Doug Jeans Jr. of Forest Lake survived Detroit Lakes senior Austin Rusness, beating the Laker 2-up.

Rusness had held a 3-up lead in the middle of the match, but dropped three consecutive holes to Jeans on holes 13 through 15, before the Madison Tech College golfer put the wraps on it with a win on 17 and 18.

Todd Hillier of Hoople, N.D., knows exactly what Holland feels like, since it was he who lost in the first round in 2011 as the defending champion.

But Hillier wouldn't take an early exit this time around, as he finished off Erik Weiss 2 and 1.

"I birdied my first two holes, so that helped get me going," Hillier said. "Then we went back and forth and it ended up being a great match."

Hillier dug out from a two-down deficit after hole eight, winning nine by par and dropping a birdie putt on 14 to take the 1-up advantage.

The 2010 champion nailed another birdie putt to take a 2-up lead on 15 and held out the rest of the way to advance.

Hillier recalls his disappointing loss last year in the first round to Teddy Cox.

"Being the No. 1 seed is just a different mindset, because the rest of the golfers are already into it after qualifying and you are behind the eight ball," Hillier said. "It just feels a little lackadaisical playing in that first round after not having to have to qualify.

"It's tough to get going."

Moorhead's Ben Welle knows how it feels to be a champion after winning the Class 3A state title this past spring for the Spuds.

He had his work cut out in the first round Thursday against the University of Minnesota's Erik Van Rooyen, who was looking to avoid losing out in the first round for a second consecutive year.

But unfortunately for the Gopher, that was to be, as Welle ended Van Rooyen's run prematurely with a 4 and 3 win.

"I was just playing the course like I usually do and hit fairways and greens," Welle said. "I didn't miss a green on the front nine and maybe just one or two on the back nine."

Welle put a lot of pressure on Van Rooyen by making six birdies on the day, which was two more birdies than the Spud made in his two qualifying rounds combined.

The tournament's marathon man award will more than likely go to each of Detroit Lakes' Kirk Eilertson and Charlie Duensing.

The duo locked horns for a total of 24 holes -- six playoff holes -- before Eilertson finally emerged as the victor.

Three former Pine to Palm champions also advanced, as 1991 and 2005 champ Rick Kuhn defeated Kyle Beversdorf 3 and 2; 2003 champion Greg Melhus downed Brandon Sletmoen 3 and 2 and of course, Hillier downing Weiss.

In some highlighted second round action, Miller will play good friend Matt Rubis, who won over Tommy Cardle 1-up and Jeans will play Tony Vincelli, who defeated Ben Souders 2 and 1.

The second round will start at 1:28 p.m. on tee one.

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