DALTON, Ga. — Donny Phillips played in his first North Georgia Invitational as a high school kid in the mid-1970s.
He's played in the tournament almost every year since and won "five or six" club championships when he belonged to the Dalton Golf and Country Club.
But he hadn't won the NGI until Sunday.
Phillips, now 54-years-old, shot a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 on Sunday for a two-day total of 6-under 138 and won by two strokes.
"This means a whole lot to me," Phillips said in between congratulatory hugs including one from long-time director of golf Lowell Fritz. "It's the one tournament, outside of a state or USGA event, that I'd want to win."
Dalton State director of golf Ben Rickett, who played at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, tied for runner-up at 4-under 140 with Dalton State rising sophomore Chase Jones. Neil Spitalny of Chattanooga won the senior division with a 4-under 140 to win by six strokes over Lanny Bailey.
Rickett defeated Jones -- Rickett's first signee to the fledgling NAIA program -- on the first playoff hole to win the top flight.
But Phillips held the big trophy at the end of the 66th annual tournament which endured weather delays on Saturday forcing some golfers to finish the first round Sunday.
"Today was just magic," Phillips said. "It just worked out in my favor to come from behind. Everything was lined up."
Well, everything except the weather. The final round needed to be a shot-gun start in the morning for the senior division and lower championship flights.
The final 25 groups started, in shotgun format, a few minutes after 4 p.m., and finished just before darkness settled on the course beside Cleveland Highway.
"I had nobody watching," Phillips said. "I didn't know what to think. I didn't have a gallery."
Rickett and former Lee University golfer Caleb Roberson began the final round one stroke off the lead set by Matt Hadden who played the last seven holes of his first round on Sunday morning.
Rickett, playing one group in front of Phillips, owned a two-stroke lead after playing the 13th hole despite the fact that Phillips spun around the front nine at 5 under. Roberson and Hadden had faded from competition by this point.
But Rickett relinquished one stroke when his tee ball off the par-3 14th tee bounced into the water. Rickett gave away two more strokes on the par-3 16th when he needed two swipes to escape from a green-side bunker and two-putted for a double-bogey.
"It was a delicate bunker shot, and I tried to be too cute with it," Rickett said. "I haven't played competitive golf in two years, and if you're playing competitively, you don't make those mistakes. I made 13 or 14 birdies, and when you're making that many, something is right."
A few minutes later, Phillips poured in his fourth lengthy -- and unexpected -- birdie putt of the day for a birdie and a two-shot lead with two holes to play. He made two other unexpected putts earlier with the first coming on No. 5, the second on No. 6 and the third on No. 9 helping him turn at 5-under with a share of the lead.
"On 9, I was 18 feet left of the hole and I made that putt then that kind of unnerved me because I'm thinking, 'I'm in the running for the tournament," Phillips said. "I was shaky on 10, 11 and 12 and I tried to think about the process and not the results."
The result was a victory.
Perhaps more will come later this year and then next year when he becomes eligible to play in senior divisions and move closer by one set of teeing grounds.
"I am trying to play more and work on my game more this year because I'm looking forward to playing when I'm 55," Phillips said. "I'm working on my game some and I'm looking forward to the senior stuff."
Contact David Uchiyama at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6484. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...