OOLTEWAH – Nolan Ray was in no hurry to leave The Honors Course on Friday afternoon.
He shook every hand that was extended. He thanked every person that needed to be thanked. He posed for pictures. He did newspaper and radio interviews. He went shopping in the pro shop.
He had waited his entire golfing career for this moment, and he was taking in every bit of it. He was the Tennessee Amateur champion.
The Brentwood, Tenn. native held off a strong charge from Tanner Owens (Milton, Tenn.), William Nottingham (Kingsport, Tenn.) and Luke Zieman (Nashville) down the stretch to claim the 104th renewal of the state championship by one stroke. Ray finished with a three-day total of 3-under, 285 (68-69-73-75).
Nottingham finished one stroke back at 286, while Owens and Zieman tied for third at 287.
“I’ve wanted to win for a long time and it’s even more special to get it at The Honors in the State Amateur,” said Ray, who spent four years at the University of Tennessee before moving on to Lipscomb as a graduate transfer after last spring.
“I played Sneds Tour when I was young and I played my first State Amateur when I was 15, so I’ve been trying to win this for eight years. I’ve been chasing a TGA title for a while. This means so much to me. I can’t describe it.”
Ray walked off the 18th green after completing his final round and was congratulated with a hug from his dad, Don.
“I won it for you, right there,” Ray told his dad as they embraced. “Thank you.”
Following the awards ceremony, Ray explained the emotions in that moment and how his dad had been the one constant throughout his golf career.
“I can just think back to my first State Amateur at Cherokee,” Ray remembered. “I was 15 and he caddied for me. We’ve just had a long run. Obviously golf is crazy, there’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs. He’s just always been that positive. To get it done for him today just meant everything.”
Ray then went back even further, reminiscing on how his dad was the one that introduced him to the game of golf many years ago.
“When I was little, he took me out to the golf course a couple of times. It got to the point where if he didn’t take me, I would start crying. It was more work for him to leave me than it was to take me.”
Don Ray tweeted later Friday evening after seeing the video of his son’s comments: “Ok … maybe all this parenting stuff is worth it. What a fun ride with more to come. Proud of your grit and work ethic. Love ya Noles!”
Ray began the final round with a two-stroke lead, and it quickly ballooned to five after he made a birdie on No. 2 and some of his challengers stumbled out of the gates. Bogeys on holes 7 and 8 left him at 5-under for the tournament, but still a four-stroke lead at the turn.
But down the stretch, a few wayward shots by Ray and some strong charges by Nottingham, Owens, and Zieman kept things interesting.
Ray bogeyed No. 10 as well, and the damage could have been even worse on the next four holes, had he not scrambled with nice par saves each time. He only hit two of the nine greens on his back nine.
“I think I just kind of had a couple things in my swing go a little wrong,” Ray explained. “I don’t think I was feeling that nervous. I figured it out about (holes) 15 or 16. When I was off, I would miss in the right spots and my short was really good.”
“Even better than that was my putting. That’s the reason I was able to win the tournament.”
Owens, meanwhile, was red hot after a front-nine 43 seemed to have taken him out of contention. The Middle Tennessee State University senior started a run on No. 11 that saw him birdie six of the next seven holes.
He was two behind Ray walking to the 18th tee box and found the fairway with his drive. Ray, meanwhile, had another errant shot off the tee that left him directly behind a tree in the left rough. He pitched out to the fairway and then hit a wedge to within about 15 feet of the hole.
Needing a birdie to a Ray bogey to force a playoff, Owens had to take aim at the pin tucked just inside a deep sand trap on the right side of the green. His approach shot found that bunker and he went on to make bogey.
Ray proceeded to two-putt for the victory.
“Tanner struggled on the front, but that back nine was super impressive,” Ray said. “I knew he was struggling on the front, and I started off the day with a little bit of a lead already, so I was just trying to play my own game.”
“Then it was like birdie…birdie…birdie…birdie. I looked at my caddy after the fourth or fifth one and was like, ‘What is he at? Where are we?’ I just lost track, he made so many birdies. I was definitely watching him down the stretch.”
Nottingham, a two-time Tennessee Junior Amateur champion who now plays at Clemson, turned in his third red number of the week, finishing with a 1-under, 71 for Friday’s round. His four-day card of 70-77-68-71–286 was only derailed by back-to-back double bogeys (holes 14 and 15) during his second round.
Zieman, who plays at Vanderbilt, was the only other player in the field to have three rounds under-par for the championship. He went 71-76-71-69–287.
Jack Crosby (Memphis), Ryan Greer (Knoxville) and Bryce Lewis (Hendersonville) tied for fifth at 2-over, 290. Michael Feher (Lookout Mountain) was the top-finishing Chattanooga-area golfer as he tied for eighth at 291.
Feher told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that playing in the Tennessee Amateur Championship at The Honors Course was personally special for him.
"I grew up at the Honors, and my dad (Mike) was a club champion here. He is my biggest inspiration," said Feher, who played collegiately at Baylor and Lipscomb. "We used to play every night together. We actually spread his ashes out on the course on the holes he had holes-in-one on. This week meant so much to me, it's hard to put in words."
Jack Rhea of Jonesborough also tied for eighth, while Tyler Johnson finished solo 10th at 292.
This was only the fourth time the Tennessee Amateur Championship had been hosted at The Honors Course, which Golf Digest ranks as the 28th best golf course in the United States.
It hosted the Tennessee Amateur for the first time in 1989 and now welcomes it back every ten years.
“Winning it here just makes it that much more special,” Ray said. “You can walk around here and not even be a golfer and know this place is something special. The place is beautiful, whether you like golf or not. You can feel it as soon as you drive through the gate.”