DAHLONEGA — As far as recruiting top talent goes, golf coach Tom Fowler could have never imagined how easy his job would be when North Georgia College & State University started both a men’s and women’s team in the fall of 2009.
Without having to cast a net any further than a half hour’s drive from the school’s home course of Achasta in Dahlonega, the NCAA Division-II Saints are looking to become competitive in the Peach Belt Conference rather quickly.
Even though both teams at NGCSU have players from other parts of the country, as well as the men’s No. 1 player Howard Duffin from Wigmore, England, there’s more than enough talent to pick from with graduates from North Hall, Gainesville, Lumpkin County and Dawson County in the Saints’ program.
“It’s been a dream to be able to play golf here at North Georgia,” said Brian Mallory, a 2006 North Hall High graduate. “Playing here has really developed us for life and leadership after we graduate.”
And, oh yeah, there’s one more claim that North Georgia’s golf has on its side when touting the relatively new program: they have a former Masters champion, serving in a mentor role, helping players adjust to this level of college golf.
Gainesville’s Tommy Aaron, the 1973 Masters champion, has been gracious enough with his time to help players with areas such as scoring, taking shots off their game, club selection and handling the pressure of the game, according to Fowler.
“He’s an honorary coach,” Fowler said. “I think the players were in awe the first time they met him.”
Fowler, the head golf professional at Achasta, was brought on board to coach the men’s and women’s programs in 2009, and handed off coaching duties of the women’s program to Leigh Anne Hunter this year. Fowler was approached by former North Georgia athletic director Randy Dunn about coaching the program initially, and knew right away that it would be a natural fit.
The first player Fowler signed to a partial athletic scholarship was 2009 Gainesville High graduate Jake Martin. For the golf program, North Georgia has two scholarships that it is able to divide up among athletes.
With Fowler’s emphasis on academics, he hopes to attract players that are already receiving the HOPE scholarship, or other academic financial aid, in order to join the program and pay little or nothing in the way of tuition.
“We hope to build our golf program around local talent, but don’t want to compromise having players of character on the team, which is most important,” Fowler said. “We make sure to have individuals with great character that are going to represent the university well at all times.
“It’s amazing how many players out there that can shoot in the mid-70s, but not all of them have the character that we’re looking for at North Georgia.”
Martin was originally courted by a host of junior colleges, but was swayed in his decision to stay close to home and play at North Georgia, the same school his parents attended. He’s glad he did.
“Playing at North Georgia has been an unbelievable experience,” Martin said. “Being so close to home really hasn’t been a distraction.
“My parents give me some space and I’m still able to see them a lot.”
Players say they receive great perks as part of the Saints golf program, maybe none better than access to the popular Achasta links free of charge.
During the spring season, players hit the course Tuesday-Friday, when weather permits, and on the weekend when they have a chance.
And perhaps no player at North Georgia knows Achasta better than Lumpkin County High graduate Ben Jarrard, a Saints sophomore.
When his family moved to Dahlonega from Fayetteville, N.C., prior to his junior year of high school, they purchased a home in the course’s residential community. Now, he’s playing a high-level of college golf right on his home course. One of North Georgia’s major appeals for Jarrard was the fact that he was in on the program’s ground floor.
“When the news came out my senior year of high school that North Georgia was starting a golf program, I was all on board with it,” Jarrard said. “It’s awesome to be able to say I helped start the program.”
Despite not showing immediate results in terms of winning tournaments, the Saints are starting to turn in steady improvement. North Georgia picked up its first men’s tournament victory in the Piedmont Invitational last spring at The Orchard in Clarkesville.
The Saints reached their next goal of scoring under 300 as a team on Oct. 18-19 in the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional Preview at the Tanglewood Park Golf Course in Clemmons, N.C.
The first day of the tournament North Georgia’s men scored a 293, followed by a 295 on the second day. Now, Fowler has his eyes set on the team’s top four scores coming in under 290.
“We have a lot of hope and momentum right now,” Fowler said.
Even though the season is divided into fall and spring seasons, the last half, with the Peach Belt Conference championship at the end of the school year, is the most important. This season, the PBC Championship will be held April 11-12 at the Savannah Quarters Country Club.
Mallory’s arrival to the North Georgia program is different than that of Martin and Jarrard, who both enrolled straight out of high school. Mallory, a senior, spent one year studying at the University of Tennessee, then two years at Georgia State prior to arriving in Dahlonega.
He jumped on board after e-mailing Fowler with interest in coming to NGCSU and playing nine-holes with the coach to evaluate his skill set. He says that the emphasis the coaches place on sportsmanship hasn’t been lost on the team, even making a point to shake hands with the other team after every match.
North Georgia’s men’s team won the Peach Belt Conference’s Sportsmanship Award, along with earning the highest team GPA last spring of 3.18.
“Our coach wants us to be well-rounded,” Mallory said. “There’s also an importance of faith in God, and the importance of doing well in school that is stressed.”
Dawson County High graduate Charley Whitmire, a sophomore, is in her second year playing at North Georgia, but is currently redshirting this season due to back problems. Whitmire, a state runner-up in Class AA her junior year of high school, was accepted into the program after a tryout following graduating from high school.
As a nursing major, North Georgia was the school she wanted to attend all along. Getting to play with the Lady Saints’ golf program was just the icing on the cake. If treatments go well for back problems, she hopes to compete again in golf next fall.
“I get the best of both worlds getting to play golf at North Georgia,” Whitmire said.
As for the future, things look good for the men’s program. Already, Fowler has commitments to play from Lumpkin County’s Aaron George, last year’s Region 7-AAA champion, White County’s John Luna and Woodstock’s Will Brackett.
North Georgia’s men’s program opens the spring season in the Outback Intercollegiate on Feb. 7-8 at the Hombre Golf Course in Panama City Beach, Fla. The Lady Saints open the spring on Feb. 14-15 in the Coastal Georgia Women’s Winter Invitational at the Sea Island Golf Course.