This story was originally published in the 2016 March/April issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Chattanooga’s golf community continues through fine young players.
When Gibby Gilbert III was growing up in Florida as an adolescent, golf was hardly an afterthought. He relished the days he could go watch his father hit practice balls in a cow pasture on land owned by the family. “Most clubs in our (Florida) area then frowned on junior golf and letting kids play,” says Gibby Gilbert II, a former PGA Tour star who won nine times in his lengthy career.
The younger Gilbert would accompany his father as he beat balls in a cow pasture on family land, although Gibby the younger may have been more interested in his father allowing him to ride a motorcycle. “I would ride while he would practice,” Gibby III says. “I never got interested in playing until we moved to Chattanooga.”
Gibby III was 12 years old when his father bought him his first set of clubs. Though he had little or no experience with the game, he decided to try out for the junior high team at Tyner after the family moved back to Chattanooga. Gilbert made the team and became a star a few years later. Chattanooga was quite the contrast to Florida then—it encouraged young players.
The Chattanooga area— as far north as Athens, south to Calhoun, west to Sewanee and east to Copper Basin—has no less than eight players performing this year at the highest level, professionally. That is far more than any time in the area’s storied golf history, though Chattanooga was long thought of as “the greatest city for golf” in the state and produced such legendary amateurs as the late Polly Boyd and the late Lew Oehmig.
Among the new players are Brooke Pancake on the LPGA Tour, Harris English who is a star on the PGA Tour, Luke List, Eric Axley, Stephen Fox, Stephan Jaeger, Adam Mitchell and Gilbert. Axley has played on the regular tour, off and on since 2006, the same year he won the PGA Tour’s Texas Open. Axley also has one Web.com title to his credit.
Paul Apyan and Derek Rende most recently qualified for the LatinoAmerica PGA Tour. Both were products of public school golf in Chattanooga and both played collegiately, Rende at UT-Chattanooga and Apyan at Southern Miss. Apyan finished tied for third in the qualifying and Rende, whose wife is Brooke Pancake, tied for ninth.Most agree the common denominator for those players is the encouragement they received from the Chattanooga area and community.
“It was a great place to play prep golf,” says English, a former Baylor School golfer who went on to achieve fame at the University of Georgia and now the PGA Tour. “There are so many great courses in the area and all were open to us,” he remarks while rattling off names of the courses. “The Honors, Black Creek, The Farm, Council Fire, Chattanooga Golf and Country Club… were such great places to grow your game.”
Stephen Fox, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga player who achieved national fame by winning the U.S. Amateur title in 2012, is a Hendersonville, Tennessee native who lived in Chattanooga for four years while attending college. He remains impressed, too.
“Black Creek was our home course and it had a great practice facility and we could play any course in the city,” Fox says. “The courses we had open to us were as good or better than any community in the state.”
Luke List grew up in the north Georgia area where his mother, Bonnie, taught high school. List, like English and Pancake, graduated from and played prep golf at Baylor School.They rate the experience they received at Baylor as critical to their success, especially considering their coach, the late Dr. Reverend Henry King Oehmig, whose father Lew was a three-time U.S. Senior champion.
“Coach Oehmig was an incredible man,” remembers English, one of the best golfers in the history of Baylor. “But more than anything, he was a great mentor. He taught us so many things that helped us in life.”
“My Baylor experience would not have been the same without him. He was such a loving guy. You would be drawn to him even if you didn’t play golf. He was everything to us.” Oehmig died less than a year ago while fishing at one of his favorite places, a serene spot in north Georgia.
Three-time All-American at Alabama, Brooke Pancake won the Tennessee TSSAA championship all four years she competed and also looked at Oehmig as a teacher who taught life lessons. “I learned a lot from him,” she says. “I am very close to the Oehmig family. I miss him a lot.”
List, who also lost his father Mark to a heart attack last year, became the first Chattanooga area player in this group to gain national recognition when he finished runner-up to Ryan Moore in the 2004 U.S. Amateur. List is also playing on the PGA Tour with English and Axley.This is a major year for List for more reasons than golf, too. In March, he is marrying actress Chloe Kirby, known for roles she played in The Conspirator, The Last Song, Momentum and Safari.
English was a Walker Cup selection (2011), while Pancake was chosen for the Curtis Cup team (2012). Invitations to be a part of those teams are evidence players are competing at a very high level. The Walker Cup is an amateur team competition between the U.S. and Great Britain for men. The Curtis Cup is the women’s version.
Adam Mitchell is another Chattanoogan who was chosen to play on a Walker Cup team (2009). Mitchell prepped at The McCallie School and later attended Georgia with English. The Baylor School’s Keith Mitchell [no relation]also played at Georgia with English, but Adam Mitchell had already graduated when Keith attended. Adam will be playing the Web.com Tour this year while Keith will attempt to qualify for the LatinoAmerica Tour. Adam Mitchell finished 21st in Web.com qualifying school last year to gain his PGA Tour playing card.
“Playing on the Walker Cup team has been my greatest thrill in golf. It was absolutely amazing, but these past four months have been pretty special as well,” Adam Mitchell says.
“I worked at my uncle’s plant in Atlanta while practicing for qualifying school,” he adds. “It was an everyday thing for four months, six days a week. If I had a tournament, such as the qualifying school, I’d work when I could at the plant. I think it was pretty cool for me to qualify while I’m working. Not sure anybody else who qualified did that.”
While English, Adam Mitchell and Keith Mitchell all played at Georgia, Fox, Jaeger and Rende played at UT-Chattanooga. All three were multi-year choices on the All-Southern Conference teams and all were members of at least one conference championship. The elder Gilbert played collegiately at Chattanooga, while his son played at Tennessee.
Going forward, Fox, who had a good year in 2015 on the Latino-America Tour, will be teeing it up with Adam Mitchell and Jaeger on the Web.com Tour.
But Gilbert is the sole person from the Chattanooga area playing the Champions. He is excited and strongly believes he can be successful.
“My goal is to win and I think I am playing well enough,” he says. While he played very well last year on the Sunset Senior Tour, finishing atop the money list with two victories. He also placed seventh in the difficult Champions Tour Qualifying School after being just two shots from the lead going into the last round. The top five earned cards outright. Gilbert became a conditional member, meaning some regular members would have to opt out before he could play, but he thinks he will get in tournaments quickly and play well enough to change that status to fulltime.
Gilbert, who is 25 years older than most of the others except for Axley, also credits his success to the Chattanooga community embracing the game and its players, but in a different way than the others.
“When I was growing up, golf was very competitive in Chattanooga. There were a lot of great players and sometimes it was hard to get in a tournament, much less win. But I learned a lot from those guys and especially from Dad.” Gibby III is carrying the Gilbert name to the Champions Tour for the second time. He relishes the opportunity to be as successful as his father and appreciates the support he’s received in this town.
Story by Sam Woolwine
Photography courtesy of the PGA Tour
Sam Woolwine is a member of the Tennessee Sports Writers Hall of Fame who writes frequently for Chattanooga Magazine.