Matt Hughes has been back in Georgia for only a few weeks, and he didn’t expect to lead the Tilted Kilt Georgia Open at any point.
That’s because he wasn’t even planning on playing in the golf tournament.
The 2004 Dalton High School graduate received a qualifying exemption from the Georgia Professional Golf Association (GPGA) and is atop the tournament’s leaderboard after Monday’s bogey-free first round at The Legends course at Chateau Elan in Braselton. The 72-hole event continues today and concludes Thursday.
Hughes shot a 4-under 68, one stroke better than Covington’s Jonathan Fricke. Chatsworth’s Tyler Mitchell is one of four players tied for third at 70.
The other two local golfers competing are David Noll Jr. of Dalton and Tunnel Hill’s Justin Jolly. Noll is tied for 24th after shooting 2 over and Jolly is one stroke behind Noll and tied for 39th out of the 143 golfers competing. After today’s round, the field will be cut to the low 60 golfers, plus any ties.
Hughes finished fourth in the 2011 Georgia Open, but he wasn’t able to play at last year’s event.
The event is open to amateur players who are Georgia residents, and Hughes and his wife Sara moved to southern Mississippi in January 2012. Earlier this month, the pair moved to Starkville, Miss., but Sara then accepted a job with Dalton Public Schools as a school psychologist.
Considering he missed all qualifying possibilities, Hughes called the GPGA and told them his circumstances.
“They gave me a special exemption where I didn’t have to qualify,” Hughes said.
The pro golfer also hasn’t had much time in competition this summer. His last tournament was the Web.com Tour’s Mid-Atlantic Championship in Potomac, Md., where he missed the cut.
Returning to his hometown and leading the Georgia Open are both pleasant changes for Hughes.
“I just enjoyed being back in competition and having the heat put on me again,” Hughes said. “It’s a tough golf course. It’s a matter of managing the difficult holes and situations you’re in and taking advantage of the few opportunities you get.”
Hughes helped the University of Alabama win the 2006 and 2007 Carpet Capital Collegiate Classic tournaments at The Farm Golf Club in Rocky Face. He also was the tournament medalist as he led Dalton High to the 2004 Georgia High School Association Class 4A state championship.
After birdies on the fifth and seventh holes on Monday, Hughes nabbed back-to-back birdies on 13 and 14. He made par on the other 14 holes. Fricke also played bogey free but only carded three birdies.
“Usually a day like that with no bogeys is stress-free,” Hughes said. “For the most part, it was. It was nice to cruise around — not to say I wasn’t grinding — but not have to scratch and claw. I didn’t have to deal with too much trouble.”
Mitchell had just as many birdies as Hughes, but bogeyed Nos. 9 and 13. Noll birdied 9 and 14, but took a quadruple bogey on the par-5 No. 5 hole to sour his round. Jolly had five bogeys that were offset by two birdies.