HIBBING — In his glory days, Greg Helstrom could compete with the best of them at the Northwest Invitational Golf Tournament.
As a matter of fact, Helstrom won the event in 1995.
But age and injury started catching up with Helstrom, and he kind of dropped out of the golf scene.
Helstrom didn’t make a triumphant return, but he is getting back to his normal self as he qualified for the championship flight at the 94th annual Vern Fryklund Northwest Invitational Golf Tournament on Friday.
On Saturday, Helstrom lost to Tyler Harvey 3-and-2 in the round of 32, and even though he was disappointed, just being back in the tournament was victory enough.
“I have started to play better,” Helstrom said. “I’m enjoying it again. I’m able to swing without pain. I used to play so much. Honestly, I think God needed to get my attention to get my priorities straight a little bit.”
“That’s what I’ve done for the past 10 or 11 years, and now, I’m having a ball just being able to be out here and compete, and feel like if I play the way I’m capable of, I can compete. The problem is I can’t do it like I used to. I don’t have the nerves.”
On the injury front, Helstrom had a knee done, and he had surgery on his back.
“I totally lost my swing,” he said. “I had no idea where the ball would go. In those 10 or 11 years, if I played six or seven times, just to go out, I had no expectations. I had no idea where the ball would go.
“I would shoot a 100. I was having a hard time breaking 90. Now it’s fun to play, and be able to score a little bit.”
Helstrom qualified with an 80, which just barely got him into the championship flight.
“That was the worst I’ve shot in two months,” Helstrom said. “I wasn’t happy with how I played at all. Two weeks ago, I shot a 67, so I know what I’m capable of when things are going.
“Usually, I’ve been shooting 74 or somewhere in there. I was glad to make it. This is where I wanted to be.”
That’s partly because of nerves. The injuries may be healed, but the mental part of the game still isn’t 100-percent.
“That’s a huge part of it,” Helstrom said. “You find yourself hitting shots then wondering, ‘How did that happen? What did I do?’ It has to be something subconsciously that you’re dealing with.
“It’s the competition and the pressure that you’re dealing with. I used to handle it well, but I don’t handle it the way I used to.”
Helstrom was the elder statesman in the championship flight, so he was at a slight disadvantage against a much-younger Harvey.
“There’s so many of these young guys, I’ve never even met them,” Helstrom said. “To be able to meet these youngsters, watch them hit the ball and see how far they hit it, it’s a lot of fun, It’s fun to compete against them.
“You realize when you hit 60 you’re never going to hit it as far as these 30-year-olds. “That’s life. You play your game, I hit it far enough where I can reach in regulation.
“If my wedges are on, I can score. My wedges weren’t so good today.”
In other matches in the round of 32, Dave Carothers beat Jon Carlson; Jeff Thune downed Brandon Helgeson; Todd Scaia beat Shane Eastman; Joe Carothers beat Aaron Jamnick; Travis Peterlin beat Dan Bollant; Kyle Ernst beat Eric Riihinen; Jared Zezel beat Ryan Oelmann; Chris Larson beat Jake Riihinen; Adam Johnson downed Mike Kokotovich; Derek Rolle beat Jacob Peterson; Chris Thune beat Ben Abrahamson; Joey Cummings beat Carl Wilson; Ryan Riihinen beat John Charais; Mike Swanger beat Taylor Sundbom and Ryan Peterson beat Boyd Rassatt.
Zezel won 2-and-1 over Oelmann
“I played well, but it could be better,” Zezel said. “I’m battling my golf swing. I only get to play once a week because I have a little guy at home. Every round is different. I have to keep grinding away.
“I pray for good luck. I try to find a one-way miss. If you miss it one side of the golf course, you can fade it and play it. That’s the goal. Figure out where the golf ball is going off the tee and go from there.”
Zezel, who has curled at a high level, knows what it’s like to be in tight matches, so he can fall back and use that experience.
“All it comes down to is having confidence,” Zezel said. “You have to make sure what you’re doing and what’s going on. It certainly helps down the stretch, in tighter spots, like here.
“You learn to play smarter and figure out what’s good and what’s not good. It helps in the planning a little bit.”
Carothers, who is a three-time winner, and placed second last year, got by his match even though he bogied the first two holes.
“I didn’t play great, but after the two bogies, I made 12-straight pars,” Carothers said. “I hit it well after that. I had some good looks at birdies, but I didn’t make them. That was good enough to win the match.”