Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club welcoming college golfers from afar

Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club welcoming college golfers from afar

May 17th, 2014 by David Uchiyama in Sportsgolf

Paul Helle has a plan that just might improve the Signal Mountain Invitational.

The tournament always has been kind to area college golfers, but a player from Georgia State won last year.

So the Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club head professional decided to see if other college players from across the Southeast would be interested.

A few played Friday in the first round of the 2014 tournament.

"My coach got a lot of emails from Mr. Helle and he forwarded them to me, and I had a free weekend," said UNC Wilmington freshman Thomas Lilly. "I'd never been to Tennessee, so I wanted to see what it's all about, plus we didn't make it to [NCAA] regionals, so I needed something to play in.

"I want to stay busy this summer."

The out-of-town college golfers -- and even University of Tennessee at Chattanooga players Andrew Weathers and Brooks Thomas -- weren't able to defeat the elements such as wind, rain and sleet Friday.

Richard Spangler shot a 2-under-par 69 to take the first-round lead. Barry Hamilton and Brandon Cissom are one shot back. Michael McGowan and Steve Johnson are two strokes off the lead.

Mitch Hufstetler and Tom Baird are tied for the lead in the senior division at 1 over.

"Our membership and tournament committee want the strongest field possible," Helle said. "They're not worried about the college kids taking over the event."

Former UTC golfer Stephan Jaeger owned the event in 2011 when it didn't have a scheduling conflict with UTC playing in an NCAA regional. Jaeger, who prepped at Baylor School, broke the tournament record by five strokes with a 17-under 196 for three rounds.

"If we have to create a mid-amateur division, we will," joked Andy White, a member of the club's board of directors.

"Seriously, this is a great opportunity for college golfers, especially with our members volunteering free housing," White said. "Hopefully the tournament will continue to grow with those guys."

Taylor McCullum, a freshman who redshirted this past season at Alabama-Birmingham, turned the weekend into a family vacation with his parents. He said he'll play next year, too -- unless, of course, the Blazers are competing in the NCAAs.

"We might stay an extra day just to hang out in Chattanooga," McCullum said. "It's a good opportunity to get a little bit of tournament play before June and July when the big amateur events begin. Hey, if you win this one, it might help you get into another tournament. It's a chance to get another good tournament on your resume."

Even though the college golfers had a much shorter winter break than most amateurs, this tournament can act as a warm-up for all of the individual tournaments they'll play before rejoining team competition in August.

"It's important that they all play a lot of summer tournament golf, because it's the only way they can improve," UTC coach Mark Guhne said. "It's a great tournament; it's local. I'm glad our guys are supporting it.

"If it wasn't during our NCAA regional, I'd have seven or eight of my guys competing."

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.