NORMAL - Dave Shulman was celebrating his 53rd birthday by playing his best golf of the year Monday.
Then Jeff Niepagen almost gave Shulman a birthday heart attack.
Shulman was cruising along with a 5-up lead in a Bloomington-Normal Match Play Tournament first-round match at Ironwood Golf Course. Niepagen won three straight holes, staying alive with a 50-foot birdie monster on No. 16, and suddenly Shulman feared the worst.
"I thought this might be the first time in the history of the city (tournament) that you go dormie 5-up and lose the match. He was making everything," said Shulman. "I was not playing terrible or giving it to him. Yes, I was getting nervous."
Niepagen's drive on No. 17, though, caught a tree and bounced under a bridge. Shulman was finally home free with a 2 and 1 upset victory over the 1999 champion.
"It's about as well as I've played in a while. I haven't been playing much at all with (kids') soccer and work and all kinds of activities," said Shulman, who was 4-under. "You just never know in this stupid game when it's going to show up and when it won't. I could play the next match and shoot 80. You never know."
Four other matches were played Monday.
Two-time defending champion Todd Mitchell cruised to an 8 and 7 victory over Drew Meiner, while Curt Hocker eliminated Mike Cushing, 5 and 4. Another two-time winner, Josh Wheeler, downed Brad Molitor, 2 and 1, and William Cullen ousted 1995 champion Rick Percy, 5 and 4.
Shulman took advantage of a couple Niepagen mistakes on the first two holes to go 2-up. It stayed that way until Shulman worked some magic with his long putter, sinking putts of 18, 10, 12 and 5 feet on Nos. 9-12 to gain a 5-up lead with five left.
When Shulman's 8-foot birdie putt that could have won the match lipped out on No. 13, Niepagen had an opening - and pounced on the chance.
"He putted incredibly all day. He's known as being a very good putter, but this may have topped anything I've seen from him," said Shulman. "That was a terrible break (on No. 17). He had some real bad breaks today."
Mitchell was never in trouble in winning his 11th straight match during the past three years, enjoying a 6-up lead at the turn. He had three birdies and no bogeys in 11 holes.
"We have a little work to do, mainly being more consistent with some of my shots," said Mitchell. "I'll hit a really good wedge from 100 yards and then the next one I hit 25 feet (away). I haven't played a whole lot this year. I have maybe been to the range one time hitting balls. Hopefully, I'll be able to hit the range a couple times this week."
The Ironwood layout received an enthusiastic endorsement from Mitchell.
"I can't remember the last time a golf course that hosted a city event was this nice," he said. "The greens are fantastic."
Hocker, an ISU senior, took advantage of Cushing bogeys at Nos. 8 and 9 to go 4-up at the turn. Hocker made a 40-foot birdie putt at the 10th and Cushing went out-of-bounds at the next hole.
"Mike is a great player. Obviously, he did not have his 'A' game. I caught him on the right day," said Hocker. "I hit 11 of 14 greens, but only had one birdie. It was nothing great, but good enough to get by, I guess."
Wheeler was 1-down after six before winning three of the next six holes to gain a 2-up lead. Molitor won No. 13 before Wheeler regained a 2-up edge with a birdie at the 15th. Two pars ended the match.
"I wasn't very good. I'm going to have to play better, obviously," said Wheeler, who won the last time Ironwood was Match Play host in 2002. "I had a couple holes on the front and a couple on the back where I lost focus and lost my swing and let Brad have a couple.
"If I play well I know I can compete, and if I don't I'll eventually run into someone who is playing well, and I'll get thumped. But I'm not looking at it that way. I'm looking at it as I got by today and now we start all over."
Cullen and Percy started early in the morning at 7 o'clock. Cullen, an ISU golf recruit, was 2-up after nine before winning the next three holes to seize control.
"I didn't play really well. I made a lot of pars," said Cullen. "I putted pretty good, but I didn't hit the ball great. I haven't played a lot of match play. You think you should be 5-up, and you're only up one or two. It's a little different."