Chris Wheeler, Dan Sullivan lead after second round At Lupton Invitational
The beautiful ninth hole at the Honors Course (Paul Payne Photo)
The beautiful ninth hole at the Honors Course (Paul Payne Photo)

Story by Paul Payne

Seeing his name on top of the leaderboard at the John T. Lupton Invitational is familiar territory for Chris Wheeler. Now he just has to figure out a way to keep it there come Sunday afternoon.

Wheeler, a Dallas resident, led the first two days of last year’s event at The Honors Course before things unraveled during his final round. Facing firm greens and blustery winds, he limped home with a 79 to miss the playoff by a single stroke.

But given his steady play on Saturday in the Mid-Amateur division following a three-hour rain delay, Wheeler finds himself comfortable to be this position again. He posted a 2-under 70 to stand at 5-under 139, two shots clear of former U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox.

“I’m very pleased to be in the lead again,” Wheeler said. “I’ve had some success here the last couple of times I’ve played, but the result was close but no cigar rounds. Anytime you’re under par and in contention, you’ve got to be pleased.”

Wheeler is currently ranked No.

Wheeler was first exposed to The Honors Course when participating in a junior golf event, and he was immediately smitten by the golf course.

“I fell in love with this place the first time I played it, and I’ve been fortunate to come back three times now for the Lupton tournament,” Wheeler said.

After regaining his amateur status 11 years ago, Wheeler has enjoyed success at the mid-amateur level. He won the Texas Mid-Amateur in 2019, the Texas Match Play in 2021 and captured the North Texas Mid-Am earlier this year.

“Playing in invitationals like this is special. It’s how I get my competitive golf in these days. I love playing in these mid-amateur events,” Wheeler said.

Opening on No. 10, Wheeler strung together ten straight pars before reeling off three birdies in four holes. He gave back a shot with a bogey on No. 3, but rallied to birdie No. 9 to double his lead.

Finding his name among the leaders comes as somewhat of a surprise for Fox. But the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga standout has a history of pulling off the unexpected after winning the 2012 U.S. Amateur as a 63-seed.

“It's totally different than when you're playing for a living,” Fox said. “This is my first event as an amateur in an individual competition. I felt the nerves come back, which is different for me. They don’t give you those three-footers out here like I’m used to in friendly competitions. You’ve got to putt everything out.”

Fox was paired with former UTC teammate Derek Rende, which help ease his angst. But he also has a broader perspective on his game and its importance in the grand scheme of life.

“I have a job, two kids and a wife now, so just doesn’t mean as much,” said Fox, who resides outside of Nashville. “If it's under 60 degrees, I'm not playing. Now that it's better weather I play once a week in some member-guests and a lot of scrambles. But I got an invitation from Mr. (Randy) Yoder (Tournament Committee Chairman) to come play for the first time and I’m glad I did.”

Fox posted low round for the day at 69 to stand at 3-under 141, finishing the day with five birdies and a pair of bogeys. 

“I joked with the staff here that I hoped I could just break 80,” said Fox, who is a member of The Honors. “My expectations were so low coming in. But hitting some good shots like I used to when I played competitively was fun. It was nice to feel the nerves returning in the heat of the action and put some of that self-doubt to the side.”

Mitchell Ford of Arkansas occupies third place at 2-under 142 after shooting his second straight 71, and Lucas Armstrong of Tennessee is one back in fourth at 1-under 143.

Five golfers are tied for fifth at even par, five shots off the lead. Those include two-time champion Joe Deraney of Mississippi, Tucker Jenkins of Nashville, Michael Morrison of Florida, Nick Maccario or Massachusetts and Rende, who is a Chattanooga resident.

In the Senior division, Dan Sullivan of Brookside Golf Club in Pasadena, Calif.. is ahead by one shot heading into Sunday’s final round with a score of 1-under 143. 
Despite owning the lead, Sullivan was not satisfied with his play Saturday that produced a round of even par 72.

Sullivan is ranked No. 72 in the AmateurGolf.com Senior Rankings.

“I drove it pretty well all day,” Sullivan said. “Putting? OK at times and atrociously bad at times. But most of the day, I was probably the worst iron striker in the field. I hit some of the worst shots I’ve ever hit with no confidence where they were going.”

Sullivan’s rollercoaster round opened with a pair of birdies, followed by bogeys on 4 and 5. Birdies on Nos. 7 and 9 resulted in a 34 at the turn, but his back nine was a mixed bag. An eagle on the par 5 11th was offset by a double-bogey at No. 15, and two more bogeys brought him home at 38.

“It’s nice to be in the lead for sure. This is my first time back in eight years after I played the first ten years of the tournament,” Sullivan said. “I got married later in life, and when we had kids, they took precedence. Hopefully, it won’t be another eight years before I come back because this is such a special place.”

Jack Hall of Georgia lurks only one shot behind as the only other golfer in red figures at 1-under 143 following a round of 75. Gene Elliott of Iowa and three-time champion Doug Hanzel are tied for third at even par 144.

Jack Larkin of Georgia and Iowa’s Mike McCoy find themselves three shots off the lead, tied for fifth at 1-over 145.

First-round leader Rusty Strawn had a difficult day after opening with an impressive 67. After a birdie on the first hole, the Georgia resident struggled the rest of the round in posting an 82.

Defending champion Bob Royak of Alpharetta, Ga. recorded the only sub-par round among the seniors on Saturday, posting a 71 with six birdies that places him five behind at 3-over 147.

Paul Payne can be emailed at paulpayne6249@gmail.com 

Results: Lupton Memorial Invitational
1MSJoseph DeraneyBelden, MS30069-75-67=211
2TNTucker JenkinsNashville, TN20074-70-67=211
3ARMitchell FordLittle Rock, AR10071-71-70=212
T4TXChristopher WheelerAddison, TX10069-70-75=214
T4TNSteven FoxHendersonville, TN10072-69-73=214

View full results for Lupton Memorial Invitational

ABOUT THE Lupton Memorial Invitational

This event, named after club founder John T. Lupton, debuted in 2005 on a spectacular Pete Dye golf course near Chatanooga. Mitch Voges won the 1991 U.S. Amateur here, and Tiger Woods won the 1996 NCAA Championship here despite a final round 80. 54 hole individual walking-only event. Stroke play format for the Championship division and Stableford format for the Senior division. Committee will invite 39 mid ams and 48 senior ams.

View Complete Tournament Information

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