Unbroken spirit wins Spirit

Ole Miss golfer Chris Rogers won the Spirit of America tournament in northern Alabama this week. His Rebel teammate Kyle Ellis finished second.

*** Editor's note: The following story appeared in the Decatur (Ala.) Daily on July 3. It was written by Ole Miss alum and Decatur Daily sports writer Kyle Veazey. It is reprinted here with permission.


Once Chris Rogers made the turn at 40, Sunday's Spirit of America back nine started with three players tied at 1-under. Clearly, the stage was set for a Spirit shootout.

But Rogers wouldn't play the part of the one who collapsed.

After entering the final round with a three-stroke lead and then losing it all with a worrisome front nine, Rogers rallied. He made three birdies on the back side to post a final-round 73, good for a 4-under 280 and the championship at the 39th Daikin America Spirit of America Classic at Burningtree Country Club.

"I knew I had nine holes on the back and I knew I could birdie every one of them," said Rogers, a Franklin, Tenn., native who will be a junior this fall on the Ole Miss golf team.

"I felt like I could get at least three of them back, to be honest."

Rogers' 280 was one shot better than his Rebels teammate, Kyle Ellis, of Senatobia, Miss. After bogeying No. 4 and No. 8, Ellis recovered with birdies on No. 9 and No. 10, then moved into a tie for the lead with a long birdie putt at the par-5 13th.

Rogers reclaimed the lead when his group made it to No. 13, nearly chipping in but settling for an easy birdie putt.

Playing in the next-to-last group, Ellis got another birdie on the par-5 16th.

Ellis said he thought he was tied for the lead when he lined up a tricky birdie putt on No. 18. He said he wasn't trying to hit the 20-foot putt, just lag close enough to tap in for par and 3-under for the weekend, which he did.

However, Rogers hit a tap-in birdie on the par-5 16th and saved par on No. 17 by wrapping a 9-iron up and around a tree guarding the right side, protecting his 4-under total.

He placed his drive in the middle of Burningtree's wide 18th fairway, then hit his approach at the only safe place on the troubling green — below the hole.

Rogers putted to within a foot and then tapped in, drawing the applause of 100 or so spectators as he acknowledged them and removed his visor.

"I beat a good player today," Rogers said, nodding in Ellis' direction. "I told Kyle before we played today that I hoped he finished second."

Ellis, 22, who earlier this month won the Mississippi Amateur, says he plans to return to the Spirit next year. He may take this year off from his college team in order to get stronger for a possible professional career.

"I played steady today," Ellis said. "I had good looks on 15, 16, 17, but putting is the name of the game out here."

The second year of maturity for Burningtree's Champions Bermuda proved much more difficult for the Spirit's 124 competitors. Three players — Rogers, Ellis and Samford coach Woodie Eubanks, the third-place finisher who shot a final-round 72 — shot par or better in this year's event.

Nineteen did it last year.

As good as Sunday's final round was for the two Ole Miss players atop the leaderboard, it was cruel to the Florida State twosome of Bradley Ruch and Matt Savage.

Ruch, who started the day three strokes out of the lead, struggled on the front but was among the three tied for the lead at the turn.

His tee shots failed him on the back, though, as he bogeyed the par-3 12th after hitting to the left of the green, bogeyed No. 15 after pushing his first shot into the right trees and bogeyed No. 18 after missing badly left.

"I've got to get this figured out; I've got to spend a lot of time on the range," said an obviously frustrated Ruch, who finished with a final-round 76 for 2-over in the tournament.

After shooting 39 on the front, Savage found his tee shot on No. 11 between a root and a rock. He took a pitching wedge in an attempt to blast it out, leaving two deep cuts into his forged metal club and the ball in the same place as it was before.

He triple-bogeyed No. 11 and suffered at least five lip-outs during the final round.

Nathaniel Balanis, who shot a 2-under 69 Sunday, was among four players who tied for fourth at 1-over par along with Austin Bowen, Chanin Puntawong and Justin Perry.

The top junior finisher was Huntsville's Tyler White, 17, who finished in a tie for 15th overall with a 5-over 289.

For Rogers, the win served as validation of sorts for his continued trips to the Spirit. He nearly won in 2003, but finished 37th in 2004 and 34th last year.

This time around, he opened with a 5-under 66 and didn't trail again.

"Leading the whole way is very hard," Rogers said. "Every round after that you know that you could lose it but you can't win it until today."

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