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Golf still a way of life for former ETSU player Nolan

Joe Avento • May 31, 2020 at 11:15 PM

Keith Nolan has been around golf his entire life, so it’s only fitting he’s still making a living at the game.

Nolan was the top amateur golfer in Ireland, an All-American at East Tennessee State and a PGA Tour player.

These days, the 47-year-old Knoxville resident is caddying for two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen on the PGA Tour Champions circuit.

After injuries derailed Nolan’s playing days, he started caddying for former ETSU teammate Garrett Willis and they teamed to win a Nationwide Tour event in Midland, Texas, in 2009. Nolan has been caddying for Janzen since 2012.

“I just love being around golf,” Nolan said.

Janzen has won once since the two have been together. Nolan was on his bag at the 2015 ACE Group Championship in Naples, Florida, when he beat Bart Bryant in a playoff.

“It’s a different surge coming down the stretch on Sunday with a chance to win a tournament,” Nolan said. “Obviously, it’s not the same as if you’re playing. But it’s nerve-racking. You get butterflies. You want to make sure you say the right things.”

Nolan said seeing golf at the highest level still impresses him even after all these years.

“These guys are so good,” he said. “They’re automatic. People don’t understand how impressive these guys are. I’m getting to see the best players in the world over 50 do it and it’s like they haven’t skipped a beat. Some of the par 5s might be a little bit shorter, but these guys’ courses are not set up short.”

Nolan’s playing days prepared him for his latest gig. He was the Irish amateur player of the year in 1997, joining an impressive list that includes Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell. At ETSU, Nolan was a big part of the 1996 team that finished third at the NCAA Championships and he went on to tie for third individually in the national tournament in 1997.

In the 1997 NCAA Championships at Conway Farms outside Chicago, Nolan finished one stroke out of a playoff; Clemson’s Charles Warren beat Texas’ Brad Elder. Nolan tied for third with Pepperdine’s Jason Gore, who double-

bogeyed the final hole when the tournament was in his grasp.

“I choked the last day,” Nolan said. “It was one of those things. I was really comfortable with the golf course. I had won the (NCAA) Preview there. The last day I shot 75 when I had a chance to win the NCAA championship.”

It was still a pretty good two-year postseason run for Nolan, who finished seventh individually when ETSU came in third at The Honors Course in Ooltewah in 1996. In fact, his final-round 72 on a course that was giving the best players fits ranks as one of his best. He beat eventual champion Tiger Woods by eight strokes that day.

How tough was the course? Woods won with a 3-under-par total. His Stanford team finished fourth, one shot behind ETSU, at 53 over. Arizona State won at 34 over.

“That was probably one of the best rounds I played in college,” Nolan said. “Those greens were as firm and fast as any greens I’ve ever played, including tour events. Individual (in 1997) would have been great, but I was proud to be on the team that had the best finish in school history. From my sophomore year on, we had good competition in qualifying. It wasn’t Oklahoma State good, but it was as good as most of the tournaments we played. If you’re trying to beat Garrett Willis most of the time when you’re home, it gets you ready for anything.”

Another highlight round for Nolan came during the 1997 European Amateur Team Championship at Portmarnock in Ireland, where he helped the home country to a third-place finish behind eventual champion Spain and a teenage Sergio Garcia.

During the medal-play portion of the tournament, Nolan shot a 70 on a chilly day with winds whipping up to 30 mph. He had two birdies and 16 pars, was four strokes better than anyone else in the field and about nine better than the field’s average that day.

“It was just one of those freak rounds,” he said. “I even topped one off the ninth hole with a 3-wood. I might have hit 3-wood and got up and down for par. That was that kind of day.”

Now he’s not hitting shots, but he’s playing a big role.

“Lee is so dialed in with what he’s doing,” Nolan said. “He gives me a few opportunities to give my input, but you have to know what to say and it’s how you say it. I still enjoy it a lot.”

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