Tennessee Headed To College World Series Title Game After 4-1 Win Over Aggies

Deraney, Combs Claim Lupton Invitational Titles

  • Sunday, May 26, 2024
  • Paul Payne

Joe Deraney’s original plans for this weekend had him hundreds of miles away from The Honors Course. After a hectic last-minute shift of his schedule, he’s glad things worked out the way they did.

Deraney was slated to compete in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball outside of Philadelphia over the weekend. But his intended partner is still playing with LSU at the NCAA Nationals, so he resigned himself to still travel north to play a round he had already booked at the revered Merion Golf Club.

But a stroke of good fortune occurred when he got a phone call from John T. Lupton Memorial tournament chairman Randy Yoder on Tuesday. Garrett Rank had given up his spot in the Lupton as he was assigned to referee an NHL playoff match in Dallas, creating an opening for Deraney.

Shifting his itinerary to Ooltewah rather than the Philadelphia Cricket Club, Deraney made the most of his chaotic week. He captured his third Lupton Invitational Mid-Amateur title in a playoff on Sunday, defeating Tucker Jenkins with a clutch six-foot par putt on the first extra hole.

Deraney becomes the first three-time Mid-Amateur champion in this tournament which began in 2005, having also lost twice in a playoff including last year. He joins Doug Hanzel, who has a mid-amateur win to go along with a pair of senior trophies as a three-time champion at the Lupton, two behind Paul Simson’s five senior titles.

“I’d say it all worked out for the best,” Deraney said. “I was looking forward to going to Merion and I really wanted to play Philly Cricket. We were supposed to go there four years ago and Covid got us. But I played really nicely today and I’m glad things worked out like they did.”

Deraney started the day five shots behind leader Chris Wheeler, but shot 67 to finish at 5-under 211 to take the clubhouse lead with two groups remaining.

There was a logjam of five golfers at 3-under when Deraney approached the uphill par 5 17th. The Tupelo, Miss. resident blistered a 3-wood over the fairway bunker, then hit a 9-iron onto the green for an eagle try. His downhill 30-foot putt dropped on the right edge, suddenly giving him a two-shot lead with one hole remaining.

After narrowly missing a birdie try on the last, Deraney then had to sit and watch as Jenkins - a fellow former Mississippi State golfer who is also from Tupelo – was putting together his own dramatic finish.

Jenkins had birdies on Nos. 14, 16 and 17 to pull within one of Deraney, then jarred a clutch putt on 18 accentuated by a fist pump to post a 67 to also finish at 5-under 211.

Jenkins’ playing partner, Arkansas resident Mitchell Ford, had an opportunity to make it a three-way playoff but missed his birdie try on the last to close at 4-under 212 after carding a round of 70.

On the playoff stage starting on No. 1, Deraney’s approach shot from under a tree found a back bunker. Jenkins also pushed his drive right into the rough, and his second shot landed short of the green. Deraney’s sand shot cozied to a makeable distance, and Jenkins’ pitch shot skirted 12-feet past the hole where he missed his attempt for par. Deraney then calmly drained his putt for the win.

The win brought Deraney’s harried week full-circle, atoning for last year’s loss when he surrendered five shots over his final five holes.

“It's a different year and I wasn’t thinking about last year,” Deraney said. “I mean, I won here twice, I lost in a playoff twice so I’ve had plenty of good rounds. It’s a hard golf course. Sometimes it gets to you, sometimes the moment gets to you. But I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish this weekend.”

Although Jenkins now resides in Nashville, Deraney had a sense of pride that the outcome was decided between a pair of guys with Tupelo connections.

“This is actually not our first playoff together,” Deraney said. “It’s kind of cool that we’re from the same town. If it were up to me, we might need to call today the Tupelo Open.”

For the second straight year, Wheeler led for two rounds but was unable to close the deal on Sunday. The Dallas resident struggled from the start with bogeys on three of his first five holes. He did manage to find five birdies on his round, but eight bogeys led to a score of 75 to finish tied for fourth at 2-under 214.

“Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out how to play three good rounds here instead of just two,” Wheeler said. “I had five three-putts. If you get on the wrong side of ridges here, you’re going to have 70 feet. I didn’t feel like I was making swings or bad putts. I kept telling myself to be patient but unfortunately things never really turned around.”

Also finishing in fourth was 2012 U.S. Amateur Champion Steven Fox who was making his return to amateur competition. The former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga golfer was pleased with his performance after posting a 73 Sunday to close at 2-under 214 despite having modest expectations.

“If you would have said in my first event back I’d finish in the top five, I would have been happy,” Fox said. “I felt like I had the chance to win it. But two doubles on the par 3s on the back nine kind of took me out of it.”

Lookout Mountain Club’s Mark Harrell was the only other golfer to close in red figures, shooting an impressive final round 68 to finish at 1-under 215 in sixth place.

In the Senior division of competition, Mike Combs of Roswell, Ga. never wavered while others in the hunt faltered down the stretch to capture his first Lupton Invitational title in his second try after placing third last year.

With his twin brother, Jeff, serving as his caddie, Combs recorded five birdies against a lone bogey to shoot 68 on Sunday. His final score of 2-under 214 was one shot clear of California’s Dan Sullivan who shot 72 to post 1-under 215.

“I would not have envisioned this an hour ago,” Combs said. “The Lupton is one of the best tournaments you have the privilege of playing in, and coming here to The Honors Course is special. It's just a dream to be a champion, and having my twin brother - who's also my swing coach - on the bag with me this week makes it even more special.”

It seemed certain that the winner would come from the final pairing of Sullivan and Gene Elliott two groups behind Combs approaching the 17th hole. But both golfers bogeyed the hole – Elliott’s on a three-putt – to drop Sullivan to 1-under and Elliott tied with Combs at 2-under.

Needing a birdie on No. 18 to win and a par to force a playoff, Elliott tugged his approach to a difficult downhill lie left of the green. His pitch skittered across the green into a bunker, and he eventually walked away with a triple-bogey. His final score of 1-over 217 dropped the Iowa resident all the way to seventh.

“It was my tournament to win or lose and obviously you saw what happened,” said Elliott, who won both the U.S. Senior Amateur and the British Senior Amateur in 2021 before undergoing a pair of surgeries the last couple of years.

“In the grand scheme of things, I'm working my way back. This outcome sucks. But I'm kind of managing myself a little bit, working on my body to get healthy again. So, I am happy to be back in contention.”

Hanzel, bidding to win his fourth Lupton Invitational, was detoured by bogeys on 15 and 16 to finished tied for third at even par 216. He was deadlocked with former champions Jack Larkin from Atlanta and Iowa’s Mike McCoy, who both recorded final rounds of 71, along with Georgia’s Jack Hall who closed with 73.

The victory capped an impressive couple of weeks for Combs.

“I qualified for the U.S. Senior Open last week, so I’m kind of on a roll now,” Combs said. “I’m just a couple of spots outside exemption to come back here in August (to the U.S. Senior Amateur), so this should definitely help.”

Having won the Senior Division of the Society of Seniors Founders Cup last fall, Combs is relishing his recent run of success.

“I’m playing some good golf lately, but I’ve never won something this big ever,” Combs said. “Winning the Lupton is something I’ll cherish for a long time.”

For final results, go to 2024 Lupton Invitational Results.

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Paul Payne can be emailed at paulpayne6249@gmail.com

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