PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- It came down to a final putt on the 18th hole in the Championship flight. Gant Bills, from Plano, Texas had a five-shot lead going into the final round at the Copperhead Course, but watched it deteriorate to nothing at the 8th hole.
By the time they reached the start of the Snake Pit at No. 16, he was two up on Earl Morley, from Palm Desert, California. Morley and Bills were tied for the lead halfway thru the event before Bills pulled away in round three. But Morley made his presence felt in the final round.
On the 18th, with a one-shot lead, Morley striped it down the middle and Bills found the bunker. Facing 205 yards in the sand to an uphill green, his 3-iron found the putting surface. Morley had about 20 feet for birdie to tie, but missed, and Bills' two-putt was enough.
Morley, despite falling short, can take comforta in the fact that his final-round, one-under 70 meant he was the only golfer to break par on the Copperhead Course in the entire Nationals field and finished ten shots clear of third place, held by Eric Condry of Fresno, California.
Bills played on the golf team at Texas Tech for two years in 1997-98, but following his college career, he walked away form the game for awhile.
"I didn't pick up a club for seven years," he said. "I kinda lost the love for the game.
"Then I started playing on the weekends, starting having fun, then I just kinda got back into it."
Bills, 37 years old with two small kids, is a member at Prestonwood Country Club in Dallas. He doesn't practice like he used to back in college, and admits his game isn't quite grooved like back in his hayday, but was able to play four rounds at Nationals in 287 (3-over par). While he had a few top 10 finishes in events in college, he admits this nationals win is his first true victory since back in his AJGA days.
This isn't the last big event for Bills. He'll ride this wave of confidence into his club championship in October and then consider some other national qualifying amateur events next season along with his Golf Channel Am Tour schedule.
Steady Prok takes home Palmer flight
Many of the golfers in the Palmer flight (4.0-7.9 handicaps) certainly show flashes of golf good enough to flirt with scratch. For Joshua Prok, from Baberton, Ohio, a recent 67 shot during a casual round revealed he may very well have scratch game in him somewhere. Now 31, he didn't pick up golf until his baseball career ended in high school due to a throwing injury.
"It was addicting," he said, liking the fact that unlike baseball, golf is a sport you can play and practice by yourself.
He joined the Golf Channel Am Tour in 2013 as a player who normally shot in the high-80s.
Fast forward to 2016 and Prok found himself close to the lead all four rounds in his first national championship. Early in the final round, he was two shots back, but made a 25-footer for bogey on the 5th hole and birdied the next two holes to take the lead.
With a two-shot lead in the final round heading to the 18th tee. A brief lightning delay of 30 minutes forced him to sit and think about a tough tee shot coming up on Innisbrook's Island course.
"I was a bit nervous," Prok said. "The 18th tee shot is kinda tough, sitting there, dwelling on everything that can go wrong.
"But I got up there and I hit it good."
Prok shot 76 and won by two shots over Cole Phillips, from Phenix, Alabama, who bounced back from a 3rd round 84 on the Copperhead course with a 76 of his own. Greg Bubela, from Whitby, Ontario, Canada, placed third. Also in the final group was Michael Rizarri, who won the National Championship in 2015 in the Hogan flight. Now in the thick of the race for the Palmer crown, he found himself in the lead heading to the back nine thanks to largely to great scrambling around the green. But ultimately his ball striking wasn't up to snuff, hitting just one green all day.
"They just started throwing darts," said Rizarri of his playing partners. "[Prok] didn't have a putt outside ten feet.
"It shows what I have to improve on. But I'm up for the challenge and doing it again."