With U. if Virginia golfer Ashton Poole holding a modest but comfortable lead throughout Saturday’s final round of the Dogwood Invitational at Druid Hills GC, the only outcome left to be determined was who would finish second.
That designation went to Duke golfer Chandler Eaton of Alpharetta. Eaton edged out Dacula’s S.M. Lee, who played the last two seasons at Dalton State and plans to turn pro later this summer.
Poole ended up with a 22-under 266 total, four shots ahead of runner-up Eaton. Poole began the final round two in front of Clemson’s William Nottingham and four ahead of Lee, but Nottingham quickly fell out of contention, leaving Eaton and Lee as Poole’s two closest pursuers.
Eaton played his last six holes on the front nine in 5-under, capped by an eagle on the par-5 ninth, to close within two of Poole’s lead, and the margin held at two shots for most of the back nine before Eaton’s lone mistake of the day at the long, par-3 16th. His tee shot sailed right of the green and bounced off a mound onto the nearby cart path. After taking a drop, Eaton’s attempted flop shot came up short and rolled back off the mound, and he was unable to get up-and-down on his second effort, taking a double bogey.
That dropped Eaton into a tie for second with Lee, who matched Eaton’s birdies at 14 and 16 to pull even with him at 17-under. But Eaton reached the fringe on the par-5 18th in two and made birdie to break the tie for second, as Lee was unable to birdie the hole and finished third at 17-under 271.
Eaton ended up with an 18-under 270 total, posting scores of 69-67-69-65. Lee’s scores were 69-64-70-68. Nottingham tied for fourth at 273 with Auburn’s Jacob Solomon.
Two other Atlanta area golfers who play their college golf close to home tied for sixth at 274. Kennesaw State’s Jake Fendt, who helped lead Forsyth County’s Lambert to a state high school championship in 2015, was the first round lead with a 65 and followed with scores of 70-70-69. Georgia Tech’s Luke Schniederjans, who played at Cobb County’s Harrison in high school, shot 69-71-65-69 to tie Fendt for sixth at 274.
Eaton did not have much of break between the end of the college season and the beginning of the national summer amateur schedule. He was one of Duke’s top two players this past season and helped lead the Blue Devils to a pair of late-season tournament victories, followed by a second place finish in an NCAA Regional and another second-placing showing in the stroke play portion of the NCAA Championship.
Duke won its quarterfinal match over Texas before losing to Alabama in the semifinals. Eaton had a break of less than a week before teeing it up at Druid Hills in the Dogwood.
“Playing in the NCAAs definitely helped my game,” Eaton said after his runner-up finish in the Dogwood. “That course (at Oklahoma State) was so hard. It made me realize how important every shot is, and that was a good thing.
“But I was so exhausted after that tournament. It was such a grind.”
Compared to the Karsten Creek Course, Eaton said four rounds at a kinder, gentler Druid Hills layout, “felt easy.”
With a short and vulnerable group of par 5s and a number of par 4s under 400 yards, Druid Hills provided the mostly college contingent that comprised the field with ample scoring opportunities, and the players who were on their games were able to post some low numbers.
“You have to make birdies here,” Eaton said of the Druid Hills layout, which is listed at only 6,860 yards from the tips. “It was hard to make them at Oklahoma State.”
Eaton began a torrid stretch of golf Saturday by hitting it close for birdies at holes 4 and 6, and hit a superb bunker shot to make birdie at the par-5 seventh. H e holed an eagle putt from just off the front fringe on the ninth and rolled in another putt for birdie at the 10th.
The birdie at 10 got Eaton to 6-under on the day and 17-under for the tournament, but he remained two behind Poole, and that’s as close as he would get. Poole stated his round birdie-birdie and after a double bogey on the short but testy par- 3 sixth, birdied the two par 5s on the front nine to stay in front.
Eaton reached the par-5 14th in two and holed another birdie putt of some length at 16 before encountering his own problem with one of Druid Hills’ par 3s.
After the grind of the NCAA Championship, Eaton said he was “focused on having fun” at the Dogwood with his brother serving as caddie. He began the day six shots behind Poole, and said he “was not focused on the lead. I was just trying to hit it on the green and make as many birdies as I could.”
Lee was a little closer to Poole at the beginning of the day, trailing by four shots. After a bogey on the opening hole, Lee ran off four birdies on the front nine to close within three of the lead, but a bogey at the par-3 14th after a tee shot in the sand dashed his hopes. He hit the par-5 14th in two for an easy birdie and added his sixth and final birdie of the day on the difficult par-3 17th to pull even with Eaton before settling for par at the 18th.
Despite trailing by four, Lee thought he still had a chance at the outset of the final round.
“Obviously he was playing well the first three days,” Lee said of Poole. “But this course is so get-able. I figured I needed at least another 64.”
Lee shot 64 in the second round to take a 2-shot lead over Fendt, but settled for a final round 68.
“That was not a bad round,” he observed. “But it was too little.”
Lee had an eventful 2-year stint at Dalton State, twice winning the Jack Nicklaus Award as the top player in the country in the NAIA division. He closed out his college career by winning the NAIA individual title by eight shots at TPC Deere Run, the host course for the PGA Tour John Deere Classic, and is hoping to play in the PGA Tour event there later this year.
Before he turns pro, Lee will become the first NAIA player to compete on the U.S. Palmer Cup team, and will travel to France in July for the annual competition between college players from the U.S. and Europe. He said he will turn pro shortly after that, and hopes to have some sponsor invitations lined up for PGA and Web.com Tour events.
Lee played in a PGA Tour event last year in Opelika, Ala., missing the cut by just one shot, and even though tournament sponsor Barbasol has moved the event to Kentucky this year, Lee is hopeful of getting a second sponsor’s invite, this time as a pro.
A win in the Dogwood would have certainly enhanced Lee’s chances for sponsor invites, but placing third will not hurt his cause.
“It’s a good feeling to finish third, but you go to a tournament to win, not finish third,” Lee said. “Still, it was great week.”
Lee is looking forward to his opportunity to compete on the U.S. Palmer Cup team in several weeks, but his thoughts are definitely on his impending pro career, which will begin shortly after the Palmer Cup ends.
Thanks to his second round 64, Lee took over first place at the midway point after Fendt opened with a 65 to grab the opening round lead. After a pair of 70s, Fendt closed with a 69 to tie for sixth, with one bad hole in Saturday’s final round keeping him from a top-3 finish along with Eaton and Lee.
Four straight birdies on holes 7 to 10 got Fendt to 4-under for the day, and he added another birdie at the 14th. But a poor swing on a lay-up from the tee on the short, par-4 15th led to an ugly triple bogey, and he seemed headed for another disaster after hitting his second shot on the even shorter 16th into a hazard behind the green.
But Fendt holed a nice pout to save bogey on the hole and rolled in two more birdie putts on 17 and 18 for a 69 and tie for sixth with Schniederjans. A third round 65 gave the rising Georgia Tech sophomore a chance for a top finish, and he moved up with a 33 on the opening nine after a bogey on the first hole. He played the last five holes on the nine in 4-under, highlighted by an eagle after a beautiful approach shot to the seventh.
Schniederjans lost ground when he played the first five holes on the back nine in 1-over, and he went bogey-birdie-bogey-birdie on his last four holes to end up tied for sixth.