Corbin Mills figured his putter had been holding him back.
Mills, a junior on the Clemson golf team, has learned how to win, and he credits improved putting for his recent surge.
“My putting’s always kind of been my weakness,” Mills said Thursday at Blackthorn Club as he practiced for the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate. “I worked really hard on putting the whole summer and it’s really starting to pay off.”
The payoff began when Mills won the U.S. Public Links Championship and the Players Amateur in successive weeks over the summer. He carried that success into the college season when he won last week’s Jerry Pate Intercollegiate, where his 201 score tied the Clemson 54-hole record held jointly former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover and D.J. Trahan.
Mills will be trying to become the second Clemson golfer to win at Blackthorn. Jonathan Byrd won the inaugural event in 1998, beating Glover by one stroke.
A few years after Byrd’s win, he was playing in the Masters. During a rain delay, he was asked what he remembered about the Blackthorn Club at the Ridges. He replied that the greens prepared him for Augusta National.
“That’s exactly right,” Clemson coach Larry Penley said. “These are big, fast and sloped. I always liked this course.”
So, on a course where so much can be gained and lost on the greens, Mills is coming in with a newfound confidence in his putter.
“There’s been a lot of small improvements in my game, especially over the past few months,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of good golf, but the main thing is putting. I’ve always been a good ball striker. It’s always let me finish decent, but I could never cross the line.”
The Public Links title earned Mills a probable invitation to the Masters next April.
“That’s pretty awesome,” he said. “It seems so far away, but I know it’s gonna come pretty quick.”
Playing Augusta will be a thrill in itself, but being so close to home — it’s roughly a two-hour drive from Clemson and his hometown of Anderson, S.C. — will make it even more special.
“I know I’m gonna have a ton of support out there,” Mills said. “It’s pretty cool.”
The 54-hole Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate begins today and runs through Sunday. A field of 15 teams will compete on the 7,147-yard Arthur Hills course.
Clemson comes in as the field’s highest ranked team, 10th in the Golfweek rankings. It will be the first appearance here for the Tigers since 2004; they won the inaugural event in 1998.
Virginia, ranked 11th, is the defending champion after beating runner-up Kent State by four strokes last year.
“It’s nice to be back,” Virginia coach Bowen Sargent said. “Obviously we’ve got some good memories of last year. Hopefully that will carry over to this year. Hopefully we can leave on Sunday as the two-time champion.”
The Cavaliers will have three players back from the team that won last year. Among them is senior Ben Kohles, the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. Kohles has 18 top-10 finishes in his career, including a fourth at the season-opening VCU shootout where he led his team to a victory. The Cavs’ score of 27 under par at VCU was a school record.
Virginia sophomore Ben Rusch was the Cavs’ top finisher here last year, tying for second place.
Also back is defending champion Mackenzie Hughes of Kent State. He won by seven shots last year after closing rounds of 66 and 65. He made only one bogey over the final 36 holes and his 203 total --13 under par -- stands as the tournament record.
Other notable players in the field are East Tennessee State’s Rhys Enoch, who has three top-10 finishes here; ETSU freshman Rhys Pugh, who starred for the Great Britain and Ireland team in the Walker Cup; Jonathan Fly of Memphis, who won the Tennessee State Amateur in 2010 and the Tennessee State Open this year; Wake Forest’s Lee Bedford, a 2010 honorable mention All-American who has three collegiate wins; and Toledo’s Dugan Murphy, the top-ranked individual in the country who is coming off a win at the rain-shortened Inverness Intercollegiate.
Three-time champion Tennessee is also in the field, as are former winners Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.
Host school East Tennessee State is seeking its first win in its own event. The Bucs have finished second twice in recent years, losing by one stroke both times.
“We’re looking forward to it,” ETSU coach Fred Warren said. “The course is in good shape and we have a strong field. I want the tournament to run well, but I want our team to play well.”
Enoch, a senior All-American, leads a young ETSU team that will include three freshmen and a sophomore. Enoch, who red-shirted last year with a shoulder injury, has finished second, fifth and seventh in his three appearances at Blackthorn.
Peter Wilson, who broke through in this tournament last year for ETSU, is out of action after undergoing hand surgery.
Joining Enoch and Pugh in the Bucs’ lineup will be sophomore Spencer Lawson, who qualified for this year’s U.S. Amateur, and freshmen Scott Gibson and Sam Edwards.
“We have a lot of talent,” Warren said. “I see some progress. I think we’re gonna be a very good team. We started off slower than we would have liked in our first few tournaments. Hopefully we’ll have a good week.”
Other schools participating are Army, Louisville, Memphis, Missouri, N.C. State, Toledo, UNC-Wilmington and Villanova.