It wasn't too long ago when the northwest Georgia area golf community was beaming about a bumper crop of top-notch youth golfers who were honing their games and winning on the junior circuits.
Now, a few years later, several of those golfers are becoming top-notch college players and a handful of them were on display at the 83rd Chicken Dinner Tournament at the LaFayette Golf Course over the weekend.
LaFayette High alum Gage Smith, who just finished his freshman season at Valdosta State University, delivered one dramatic shot on the final hole to win his first Chicken Dinner title and put his name up alongside those of his contemporaries.
Smith, who has a non-competitive career-low round of 62 at LaFayette, shot back-to-back 66's to finish at 12-under-par (132) and defeat former Southeast Whitfield alum and current Dalton State College golfer Matthew Cleary (67-66) by a single stroke. The twin 66's were the lowest two rounds Smith has ever shot at the signature event on his home course.
"I've been in the top five the last two or three years, so it's great to finally win it," Smith said. "You watch this thing growing up and you see guys, like (recent three-time champions) P.J. (Shields) and Levi (Nix), guys that you've always looked up, win it. To finally be mentioned in the same sentence as them is awesome."
He added that Saturday's score gave him plenty of confidence going into Sunday.
"Doing that in the conditions we had yesterday helped a lot," he explained. "(Saturday) was really rough. It rained pretty steadily, probably on 14 of the 18 holes we played and especially the last nine, but I ended up shooting a 31 over the last nine holes in the rain and that was big momentum-catcher coming into (Sunday)."
Smith, who enjoyed a slim one-shot lead going into the final round, maintained the narrow advantage after he and Cleary both made birdie on their first hole of the day, the par-5 11th. Both golfers made par on 12, but Cleary would card a birdie on the par-4 13th hole to tie Smith for the overall lead.
The score would stay tied after both golfers shot par on 14 and 15 and after both birdied 16. However, the next three holes would change things.
Smith followed his birdie putt on 16 with another birdie on 17, while Cleary had his loan hiccup of the day on 18. dropping a shot with a bogey. Smith then followed with a birdie 4 at the par-5 first hole to take a three-shot lead into the final nine holes of the tournament.
Smith's lead would remain at three shots as the two golfers matched each other over the next five holes with each recording four pars to go with matching birdies at the par-5 fourth hole. However, with just four holes left, Cleary made his move.
He birdied the par-4 seventh hole and followed up with a birdie at the par-3 eighth and the par-4 ninth to pull even with Smith with only the par-4 10th hole remaining.
But, with the possibility of a playoff looming, Smith would save his best for last as he hit his approach shot to within a foot of the cup. He would then roll in the birdie putt and ultimately celebrated his first-ever Chicken Dinner title. He finished the final round bogey-free with six birdies.
Smith, who finished in a tie for second place with VSU teammate Matt Anderson at the Gulf South Conference Championship in Mobile, Ala. back in April, said big-time college tournament golf prepared him for the weekend.
"It was awesome," he said. "It was a fun finish and playing (in college events) has helped me a lot. You learn a lot competing against guys as good as Cleary is. Every weekend we're playing against some of the best, so it doesn't scare you when a guy runs off three birdies in a row like that, because you know everybody can do it."
Former Trion and current Truett-McConnell golfer Dawson Day shot rounds of 69 and 67 to finish three strokes back at 8-under-par. Gordon Lee graduate and former Georgia Northwestern golfer Lanier Guest (69-68) finished at 7-under, while LaFayette native Ethan Dendy followed up his opening-round 73 with a 67 on Sunday to tie rising LaFayette High senior Tyler Jackson (69-71) for fifth place at 4-under. Dendy would take officially take fifth after beating Jackson on the third playoff hole. Nix (72-69), along with former Trion and Georgia Northwestern golfer John Rollins (72-69), tied for sixth place at 3-under in the championship flight.
Ty Pendley won the first flight with rounds of 74 and 69. Pendley won by two shots over Byron Reed (75-70). Jeremy Willis (74-73) and Luke Potts (75-72) both finished at 147 with Willis taking third on a scorecard playoff. Joey Westmoreland (76-73) and past Chicken Dinner champion Shonn Weldon (77-72) both shot 149 with Westmoreland taking fifth on a scorecard playoff.
Seth Dodd (83-73) took first place in the second flight after beating Josh Jackson (84-72) in a scorecard playoff. Ray Roberts (81-76) was third in the flight, while Ricky Hairston (83-77), Kyle Harmon (82-78) and Tony Autry (80-80) all finished at 160. Hairston was fourth after the scorecard playoff, followed by Harmon and Autry.
In the third flight, a scorecard playoff gave Daryl Yeacer (86-81) the win over Nathaniel Bellamy (87-80) and Jake Burnett (86-81). Another scorecard playoff gave Jeff Cooper (89-79) fourth-place in the flight, followed by Jason Reynolds (87-81) and Chip Muller (88-80).
And in the Senior Division, John Stanley had rounds of 73 and 70 to earn a four-shot victory over Rick Donahoo (72-75). Larry Woodall (78-75) finished third. Donny Peppers (77-81) was fourth and Larry Haynes (80-81) was fifth.