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The 64th USBC Masters Championship will begin with qualifying rounds on Tuesday and wrap up with the live television finals (ESPN, 3 p.m.) on Sunday, Feb. 23.

One of the sport’s four major championships, it actually predates the founding of the Professional Bowling Association Tour. It was – and still may be – bowling’s premier event, open to all comers.

For followers of the Masters in Western New York it’s been almost as frustrating as the Bills’ Super Bowl runs in the 1990s. No Western New Yorker has won the Masters, but four men have come agonizingly close on seven occasions.

The first was the late Tom Harnisch, who was fourth in the 1966 tournament in Rochester. Harnisch collected $1,800 in a tournament won by Bob Strampe.

Local bowlers were out of the Masters picture until the 1980s, when a phenom from Black Rock, Tom Baker, made two runs at the title.

In 1981, at age 26, Baker finished third in a tournament won by Randy Lightfoot of St. Charles, Mo. Baker defeated Dave Soutar, 204-200, in the first match of the stepladder finals and then eliminated Wayne Webb of Tucson, Ariz., 215-181, before losing a close match to eventual champion Lightfoot, 217-213.

The next year, Baker was back challenging again, finishing fourth. This time he defeated Steve Fehr of Cincinnati, 222-200, in the opening match of the finals but fell to eventual runner-up Ted Hannahs of Zanesville, Ohio, 212-188. Joe Berardi of Brooklyn was the winner that year.

Seventeen years later, Baker finished fourth in the 1999 Masters won by Brian Boghosian, an amateur from New England.

Nobody has come closer to winning the Masters, though, than Jack Jurek of Lackawanna. He twice has been the runner-up in this milennium.

Jurek was the top qualifier in 2006, but lost to Doug Kent of Newark, 277-230, in the final match

“It’s disappointing not to finish it off, but it’s probably the best week I’ve ever had,” said Jurek, who earned $50,000 for finishing second. “This is my biggest pay day, and no matter what happens from here, I’m going to have my biggest year.”

Jurek was the top qualifier again in 2011. This time he ran into a hot bowler – an unsung regional pro named Tom Hess of Urbandale, Iowa – and some tough luck in the final match.

Jurek struck on six of his first seven shots and led by 22 pins before disaster struck, back to back splits in the eighth and ninth frames. Hess ended up winning, 225-214, for his first career win.

In between, in 2010, Ryan Ciminelli of Cheektowaga, only 23 at the time, qualified third for the Masters final. He defeated fourth seed Mike Scroggins, 246-229, in the opening match but lost to Hall of Famer Walter Ray Williams Jr., 258-224, in the next round.

Williams went on to win his second Masters and 47th tour title, defeating Chris Barnes of Double Oak, Texas, 290-217, at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno.

Will another Western New Yorker figure in this year’s Masters? Ciminelli, Jurek and Baker are entered. Brad Angelo of Lockport, John Szczerbinski of North Tonawanda, Liz Johnson of Cheektowaga and Frontier High senior Chad Mee also are in the field of 470 at the Brunswick Zone Carolier in North Brunswick, N.J.

Defending champion is Jason Belmonte of Australia, who won the Tournament of Champions last month. Belmonte will be attempting to be the first repeat winner since Billy Welu in 1964 and ’65.

Burgio takes charge

Joe Burgio of the Tonawandas Association was the top qualifier last Sunday in the 23rd Annual Tri-City Masters at Bowl-O-Drome Lanes in Niagara.

Burgio bowled 1,340 (223 average) in the six-game qualifying. Match play will be Sunday starting at 11 a.m.

It came down to a roll-off betwen Mark Doel and Rob Samborek for the final spot in the field of 24. Doel won, 257-244.

Former champions Mike Hanes, Mike DeMartinis, Mike Firzak, Mike Wozniak and Peter Maduri are among those who qualified for match play.

The top eight bowled 1,269 or better and earned a bye into the second round of match play. Matches are two-game total pinfall.

email: mnorthrop@buffnews.com