While the 2007 squad was the first UTC team to make an appearance at the NCAA Regionals, you will have to go back to the early 1990's to find the first Moc to participate as an individual.
That honor goes to 2012 UTC Athletics Hall of Fame Inductee Neil Connolly. Connolly qualified for the NCAA Regionals as a junior in 1992 and again as a senior in 1993. He advanced to the NCAA Championships in '93, becoming the first Moc to play in the finals.
Connolly came to the Scenic City in 1990 as a prized recruit of former head coach Reed Sanderlin. A native of England, Connolly always knew he wanted to played collegiate golf in the United States. Sanderlin impressed him during the recruiting process and brought him to Chattanooga.
"In the U.K., we have no real equivalent to varsity sports at the University level, so from the age of thirteen I knew I wanted to come to the States on a golf scholarship," said Connolly via email. "As there are no guarantees of success being a Tournament Professional, my parents would not allow me to turn professional until I had taken my education as far as I could. So to have the opportunity to study and play against the best in the States was the perfect option."
Connolly found out quickly that he had made the right decision, thanks to the famous 'Southern Hospitality' he felt in his first semester. "The friendly 'Southern Hospitality' helped with me being away from home," added Connolly. "For my first ever Thanksgiving, (we don't have it in our calendar) I was invited to six different families to celebrate!"
After his freshman year and that first Thanksgiving, Connolly settled into an All-Southern Conference season as a sophomore in 1991. As a team, the Mocs finished fifth at the SoCon Tournament.
He came into his own as a junior in 1992 and nearly pulled off a regular season win at the Cavalier Classic in Charlottesville, Va. After posting a 3-under 216, he found himself tied with Georgia Tech's David Duval. Connolly lost on the third playoff hole, a bitter defeat that remained that way until Duval won the British Open in 2001.
"(The Cavalier Classic) has a bitter sweet feel to it on reflection," added Connolly. "I lost on the third hole of a playoff...which counts for the bitterness part. What turned out to be the sweet part was that I had just lost to the future Open Champion, David Duval."
Connolly rode that runner-up finish to another All-SoCon season, leading the Mocs to another fifth place showing at the SoCon Tournament. This time Connolly's play earned him a berth in the NCAA Regionals at Colgate University. There he shot (80-76-73=229, +13) to finish 60th overall. It was a solid showing, especially considering he was moving into territory never before seen by a Moc golfer.
"The experience was bitter-sweet because it was a privilege to be the first player to represent the University at Regionals, yet Coach and I both knew that I was not playing well at all," explained Connolly. "Unless I found some form at the tournament things were going to end quickly, which they did!"
Connolly came back as a senior and again earned All-SoCon honors. This time UTC moved up to tie for second at the SoCon Tournament. He again qualified for the NCAA Regionals, making a return trip to Charlottesville where he narrowly missed his first collegiate win.
This time Connolly lit up the Birdwood Course. He opened with a 2-under 70, before moving back to even par with a 74 in the second round. He posted a 3-under 69 in the final round to finish fifth overall. As the top individual for a non-advancing team, he went on to the 1993 NCAA Championships at the University of Kentucky.
"This time around I was playing well going into Regionals and was very fortunate to have the event held on one of my favorite courses," said Connolly. "Coach and I were hopeful of a good tournament. The sense of achievement of being able to produce the game when it really mattered has been a source of reference over the last twenty years for me."
Connolly did not make the cut at the NCAAs, but still blazed a trail in more ways than one. "To be the first UTC player to travel to an event by plane was a luxury which will always put a smile on my face," recalled Connolly. "Then to represent the University in a field of future champions such as Stewart Cink, Justin Leonard and David Duval was something very special."
Connolly is quick to recognize Coach Sanderlin as one of the reasons for his success, both as a student-athlete at UTC and in his professional life after college. "When he recruited me in 1989, in London, he said that we may not have the strongest team in the country but what he promised us was a great schedule," said Connolly of Sanderlin. "This great schedule was a platform from which we could compete against the best players in the country and see how we stacked up. He was always there for the team and has been an inspiration for me in my career both in playing and coaching."
Connolly gets back to Chattanooga annually to visit with Coach Sanderlin and his wife, Carla. This time he is bring his family to share in a very special occasion. Of all the ground-breaking memories he experienced during his time as a student-athlete at UTC, Connolly will have one of his fondest memories this week when he is inducted into the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame.
"To be remembered twenty years after my playing days, by the Athletics Department, and to be inducted into the Hall of Fame will, without a doubt, become my fondest memory."