ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. -- LaGrange captured its first USA South Golf Tournament championship on Sunday at the Benvenue Country Club.
The Panthers edged defending champion Methodist by four shots with a tournament total of 916. Greensboro was third, 12 shots back of the Panthers.
With the win, the Panthers secured the conference's automatic qualifier for the NCAA Division III Golf Championship tournament. It will be the Panthers' seventh appearance in the national tournament and first since 2012.
The conference championship was the Panthers' second in the past three years. They won the Great South Athletic Conference title in 2012.
The Panthers took a five-shot lead into the final round and twice built double-digit leads. They had to survive challenges in the middle of the round from Greensboro and another one from Methodist down the stretch.
"This is a great win for these guys, the program and for LaGrange College," said head coach Lee Richter. "We came in this year with a little stronger team. We got some freshman who can really play and they're grinders."
Cory Howard won the individual championship with a two-stroke win over N.C. Wesleyan's Chris Freeman. Howard shot a final round 73 for a five-over total of 221.
"Cory should have won the tournament last year but ran into trouble on the final hole," said Richter. "He's a good leader and he got some help this year. This was a true team effort with everyone contributing and leaving here feeling good about themselves."
Howard made the turn at nine one-over for the day after a bogey at the par-4 7th hole. He recorded an eagle 3 on the par-5 10th hole to get to one under.
But Howard bogeyed 12,13 and 14 to fall into a tie for first with Freeman. He recovered with a birdie at 15, then ran off three straight pars to close out the round. Howard was thinking of what happened on 18 last year.
"That experience helped me, just knowing in my mind that I was not going to go left on the hole," Howard said. "I hit my tee shot down the middle and the rest is history.
"This is my third title and that experience of winning a tournament helped coming down the stretch. I hit a tough stretch in the middle of my round but fought through it and it just feels great to win."
The Panthers' three freshman followed Howard. Logan Lanier had a 76 to finish sixth at 228. Osborne Theam shot a 78, tying for seventh at 230. Anthony Scolapio had a final round 80. Freddie Wolford, the Panthers' lone senior in the lineup, shot 82.