By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
OLD HICKORY, Tenn. – There's an old saying that lightning never strikes the same place twice. Whoever came up with that infamous myth clearly has never met the Tennessee Tech men's golf team.
After dropping a school-record 11-under, 277 in the first round of the Big Blue Intercollegiate Monday morning, the Golden Eagles struck again in round three Tuesday afternoon, shattering the program mark for 18-hole scoring with an incredible, 19-under, 269 to capture the team's first tournament title in over eight years. The third-round total topped the previous school record by five strokes, while the -19 shattered the mark set less than 24 hours before by eight shots.
The Tech men showed a resolve unmatched by any of the other 12 teams at Hermitage Golf Club, overcoming an 11-stroke lead by Ohio Valley Conference rival Belmont entering the final round, to take home the hardware by a convincing seven strokes. The Golden Eagles' 269 not only marked the lowest score of the third round, coming in 14 shots lower than any other team on the day, it also represented the lowest round of the tournament by six shots.
Clearly not satisfied by his first-round 66, junior Mitch Thomas took his play to a new level on the final day of action, firing off a tournament-low 64 (-8) to solidify second place overall in the field of 80. The Knoxville native's final 18 holes helped him tie the program mark for single round relative to par, matching the eight-under, 64 recorded by Randy Darcy in 1972 and the eight-under, 63 run off by current PGA Tour pro Scott Stallings.
Thomas' 54-hole final, relative to par, of 13-under finished behind just one other in all-time Tech history, falling three strokes behind Stallings' near-impossible -16, set in the fall of 2005. The junior's 203, which came courtesy of rounds of 66, 73 and 64, matched the second-best 54-hole mark completed by Barrett Steakley in 2007.
After posting a very impressive 67 over his first 18 holes, senior Lee Whitehead took a small step back to complete day one of action, carding a 76 to fall into a tie for 14th overall. Tuesday was a different ball game, however, as the Knoxville native showed just how he earned the nickname of "Wiley Veteran," torching the final round for a season-low 66 and finishing with a season-best score of 209. Both his third-round total and 54-hole composite marked the second lowest totals of his three-year Tech career and helped the senior jump back into a share for fifth place.
Earning the other half of that fifth-place finish was fellow senior Mason Griffin, who showed now signs of rust after reentering the starting five for the first time of the spring following injury. The native of Kingston, Tenn. improved each round as he went, ultimately wrapping up his final regular-season tournament in the purple and gold with a 72-69-68=209. Griffin's third-round 68 represented a season low and matched his career-low single-round score, while his 209 beat out his previous 54-hole scoring record by three strokes.
Thomas, Whitehead and Griffin all took home All-Tournament nods at the Big Blue Intercollegiate, the first time three Golden Eagles took home hardware since 2002, when Brad Sewell, Ryan Greer and current Tech head coach Polk Brown each earned All-Tournament honors at the Mercer Invitational. For Whitehead, it marked the third time this spring and fifth time of his career that he earned All-Tournament accolades. It also represented the second straight tournament that Thomas finished in the top five and fourth time of his career. Griffin captured All-Tournament honors for the second time in his career.
Rounding out the record-breaking third round for the Golden Eagles was a familiar face from the historical first-round total, Powell, Tenn. native Bryce Kendrick. The junior broke his own personal mark for 54-hole scoring by wrapping up a 213 with a third-round final of 71. He had already tied the second-lowest single-round score of his career over the second 18 with a 70 and was a key cog in the history-making first round after tallying a 72. Kendrick just missed out on his first top 10 finish of the season, tying for 11th overall at the event.
Freshman Alexander Riddle wrapped up the starting five for the Tech squad, shooting a third-round 73 for his best 18-hole performance of the event. A native of Chattanooga, Riddle finished in a tie for 45th with a 225 overall.
Four more Golden Eagles took part on the President's Reserve Course, competing as individuals while representing the purple and gold. Finishing tops among all individual competitors at the event was Sparta, Tenn. native A.J. Wilkerson. The redshirt freshman set a new career mark for 54-hole score with a 214 to finish the tournament, highlighted by a personal-best 18-hole mark of 68 in the first round. The youngster tied for 13th overall.
Local Cookeville native Adam Cunningham enjoyed his best 54-hole performance of the season, wrapping up a 219 for the event with a scoring line of 73-71-75. The junior tied for 30th and finished second among all individual participants.
Seniors Neil Gannaway and Maxx Verble completed the Tech roster at the Big Blue Intercollegiate, also competing at individuals. A newcomer to the Golden Eagle squad this spring after spending the past four years as a member of the Tennessee Tech football team, Gannaway matched his best 54-hole score with a 236 after putting together rounds of 76, 79 and 81. Verble rounded out his first event of the season with a three-stroke improvement over his final 18 holes, notching a 78 to finish with a 241.
No stranger to the joys of finishing at the top (he helped Tech win five championships as a player from 2002-2006), head coach Polk Brown earned his first tournament title as the men's head coach with the victory. He captured his first championship as a coach during the 2013 spring season when the women's squad outpaced 12 other teams to win the inaugural Bobby Nichols Intercollegiate.
With nothing but time in their way at this point, the Golden Eagles will hit the links and practice hard in preparation for the Ohio Valley Conference Championships. The conference tournament, which will take place at The Shoals on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Muscle Shoals, Ala., will run three days from Friday, Apr. 24 to Sunday, Apr. 26.
Top photo by Rob Schabert, bottom photo courtesy of Carla Hazelwood