Chattanoogan: Mike Nelms Was Finalist In 1970 U.S. Junior Amateur
Friday, July 22, 2016 - by John Shearer
- photo by John Shearer
Having just turned 16 years old in the summer of 1970, Mike Nelms was as interested in driving an automobile as he was a golf ball.
So that combined with the fact he felt no pressure due to being relatively new on the national junior golf scene, he managed to relax and play pretty well that summer in a very big golf tournament – the United States Junior Amateur.
In fact, he reached the finals at the Athens, Ga., Country Club before losing, 8 and 6, to current television golf announcer Gary Koch, who was two grades older and would go on to win six times on the PGA Tour.
“I went down there with no pressure,” Mr.
Nelms recalled, remembering that his mother accompanied him to the tournament. “I played and had a good time. I had played well until the final round. I was tied after the first four holes, but he beat me on the next eight.”
The round ended after Mr. Koch hit his three-wood tee shot to only about a foot away on the par 3 12th, but the memories of being apparently the only Chattanooga area golfer ever to reach the finals of the prestigious tournament have lingered.
Mr. Nelms said he has thought about that some this week, as the U.S. Junior Amateur – which dates to 1948 – has been held in the Chattanooga area for the first time at the Honors Course.
“It’s good memories for me,” he said.
Mr. Nelms’ name as a past finalist has been on display at the Honors Course on a large banner put up by the United States Golf Association next to the club’s scoreboard. It is there with the names of such greats as previous winners Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods (three-time champion) and Jordan Spieth, and such fellow runners-up as Ken Venturi, Andy North and Scott Simpson, each of whom won the U.S. Open at least once.
Mr. Nelms these days can be found at Creeks Bend Golf Club, where he has been a teaching pro since 1978. For a number of years he was also found on the top of a leaderboard.
His resume includes winning the Tennessee Open in 1981 and 1985, the Tennessee Amateur in 1974 at the Holston Hills Country Club in Knoxville, and the Tennessee state high school individual championship in 1971.
The City High graduate also helped his Dynamos win state team titles in 1970 and 1972 under coach Jim Phifer, who later went on to enjoy some success as the golf coach and principal at Notre Dame High. Among Mr. Nelms’ teammates at City were Coy Mabry, Hall Reynolds, Hunt Gilliland, Gordon Campbell and Tom Braly.
And during the Valleybrook Junior Invitational about that time, he shot a 63 during a round.
He had initially honed his game at the now-razed Rivermont Golf Club before his family joined Creeks Bend in 1970.
Among his other memories of the 1970 U,S, Junior Amateur, Mr. Nelms recalled that some other future touring golfers played in it. As a result, he feels fortunate that he advanced so far.
“Most of the good players got beat out pretty early,” he recalled.
This week at the Honors Course, numerous college head golf coaches have been spotted trying to get noticed by the golfers.
Mr. Nelms recalled there was a little of that back in 1970, but nowhere near what college golf recruiting has become in recent years. He was also still just a rising junior in high school, which at the time did not draw the interest of a lot of college coaches like it does today in the era of early commitments.
He went on to sign at the University of Kentucky in part because the coach, Danny McQueen, was a PGA golf pro. At that time, some schools still had as golf coaches assistant football coaches or other athletic department staffers with limited knowledge of the sport.
While at Kentucky, Mr. Nelms said he became re-acquainted with Mr. Koch, who was playing at Florida, and has seen him some over the subsequent years. He has also been back to the Athens Country Club, which is still located at the same site on the outskirts of town, although the clubhouse has been replaced.
And his mind has also traveled this week back 46 years to one of the highlights in his golfing life.
“That boosted my career immensely,” he said.