Mark Baggarly entered last year’s Tillinghast Invitational golf tournament as a relative unknown.
This weekend, he won’t be flying under the radar. Defending champions usually don’t.
Baggarly, a 42-year-old former University of Florida golfer, celebrated his return to competitive golf last year by winning the Tillinghast at Johnson City Country Club. He hadn’t played in a tournament in about two years.
“Nobody knew anything about me last year,” Baggarly said.
The eighth annual Tillinghast begins today, and Baggarly will be trying to become the third man to win consecutive titles. The late Joe Meade did it in 2007 and ’08, and Chip Spratlin won three in a row from 2009-2011.
“It’s exciting,” Baggarly said. “It’s a big tournament for our area, for East Tennessee and obviously for Johnson City Country Club. Hopefully I’ll play my best and be a great defending champion. We’ll see what happens.”
Baggarly finished with a 69 on the final day last year to win by two strokes. His 36-hole total last year of 136, eight under par, tied Spratlin’s tournament record, set in 2010.
The two will be in the same group for today’s first round.
Also in the field is Lawrence Largent, who tied for second place last year. Largent is about to begin a busy three days of golf. He qualified for the U.S. Open sectional and will be playing 36 holes in Ball Ground, Ga., 50 miles north of Atlanta, on Monday trying to make the field at Merion.
Other possible contenders include former East Tennessee Amateur champions Bryan Sangid and Nick York, and Tommy Miller of Boone, N.C., who seemingly contends in every Tri-Cities tournament in which he plays. Bill Hardin, who lost a playoff to Meade in 2007, is also in the field.
Baggarly admits to being a little rusty thanks to not having played much golf this year.
“It’s been a long , cold, wet spring,” he said. “It’s been tough. I’m trying to get myself a little bit sharp to play. I’ll sort of be relying on past experiences.”
With little rain in the forecast until possible thunderstorms on Sunday, the JCCC course is expected to be playing firm and fast all weekend.
“The course is looking amazing,” Baggarly said. “It’s in great shape. It’s not long, but there’s gonna be a premium for ball striking and proper placement on the greens.”
Perhaps the best competition will be in the senior division, where defending champion Tim Dinwiddie will have his hands full.
The senior field includes Mike Poe, Mike Freels, Ron Waters and Tony Green, all winners of numerous major tournaments during their careers.
A ceremonial foursome consisting of John McNeely, Allan Strange, Skeeter Heath and Bill Greene will play at the back end of the championship flight. McNeely, Strange and Heath were on East Tennessee State’s championship teams during the mid-1970s. Greene is a local bank president, a longtime supporter of golf and a member of the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame.
The Tillinghast tournament is part of the Tri-Cities Amateur Tour and a points event for the Tennessee Golf Association player of the year award.
The final round is scheduled for Sunday.