The top players in the Georgia PGA will attempt to end a 4-year run of success by amateurs from the state when the Championship at Berkeley Hills tees off Monday morning.
Three college golfers captured the Georgia PGA event in 2013, ’14 and ‘15, and a high school competitor made it four in a row last year. Two of the four are entered in this year’s field, with 2013 champion Gus Wagoner, now an assistant at Ansley GC’s Settindown Creek, among the Georgia PGA contingent looking to end the reign of the amateurs.
Georgia Southern signee Jacob Bayer, a member at Berkeley Hills, will look to defend his title after posting a 10-under 134 total last year.
Bayer won by two shots over 9-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year Tim Weinhart, who was an assistant at Berkeley Hills during his early years in the Georgia Section, and has enjoyed considerable success in the tournament, although he is still looking for his first victory. Weinhart is the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links.
Weinhart, who has won almost every other Georgia PGA event including all four of the Section’s majors, has finished fourth or better in five of the seven tournaments hosted by Berkeley Hills, including a pair of runner-up finishes and two third-place showings. He has been the low pro three of the last four years, collecting first place money and first place points toward Player of the Year honors, which he won in 2014, ’15 and ’16, the third time he has claimed that honor three years in a row.
Chris Nicol, an assistant at Georgia Golf Center, won the inaugural event at Berkeley Hills in 2010, edging former tour player Sonny Skinner by a shot. Nicol opened the Georgia PGA’s 2017 tournament schedule with his second win in the Rivermont Championship, and led the Yamaha Atlanta Open after a first round 66 at Echelon GC before struggling in the final round and tying Weinhart for third behind amateur Wyatt Larkin, who is part of a strong amateur contingent in the field at Berkeley Hills.
The Georgia Amateur begins in Augusta two days after the tournament at Berkeley Hills ends, but there are still some top amateurs in the field for the Georgia PGA event. Along with Bayer and Larkin, a member of the golf team at Kennesaw State, are several other amateurs capable of making it five wins in a row for the non-professionals.
Also in the field are recent Georgia State graduate Nathan Mallonee, who played much of his college golf at Berkeley Hills, Mercer’s Brennan Bogdanovich, Florida State’s Jonathan Keppler and recent GSGA Junior champion Brandon Cho, who will be playing in the Georgia Amateur later in the week.
Mallonee tied for eighth at Berkeley Hills in 2014 and was second the next year at 11-under 133, one shot behind Georgia State teammate Davin White, who has since turned pro.
Several of the state’s top senior amateurs are also playing at Berkeley Hills, including 2007 Atlanta Open champion Bob Royak and the unrelated duo of Chris Hall and Jack Hall.
Although the senior amateurs may be giving up some distance to the longer hitters in the field, they will be competing on a course that does not require booming drives to produce low scores. Berkeley Hills measures only 6,700 yards from the tips with two par 5s around 500 yards, only two par 4s longer than 410 and no par 3s over 200.
Berkeley Hills’ typically quick putting surfaces and a number of tight tee shots provide much of its challenge, but the tournament usually produces low scores, with the winner shooting between 8 and 12-under every year except 2014, when 6-under won.
There are a number of scoring holes at the Duluth course, including a number of short par 4s, the 144-yard par-3 11th and the reachable but risk/reward par-5 third, one of metro Atlanta’s most appealing golf holes.
Although he has never won the tournament, Weinhart is 36-under for 14 career rounds in the tournament, a scoring average just below 69.5. He will head up the professional field at Berkeley Hills, which will include all but a handful of the state’s top PGA members.
Among them is long-time tour player Paul Claxton of Hawk’s Point in Vidalia, who recently placed third in the PGA Professional Championship to qualify for next month’s PGA Championship, and was fourth at Berkeley Hills last year. Claxton and Skinner both spent most of their professional careers on what is now the Web.com Tour along with four years each on the PGA Tour. Skinner finished in the top six in each of the first four tournaments at Berkeley Hills and has been in the top 15 the last two years.
Along with Nicol, the other former Georgia PGA pros who have won at Berkeley Hills are Towne Lake Hills instructor Bill Murchison and Marietta CC Director of Golf Stephen Keppler, Jonathan’s father. Keppler has finished 11th or higher in six of the previous seven tournaments, winning in 2012 with a 133 total, tying for the second lowest 36-hole score in event history. Keppler is coming off a recent appearance in the U.S. Senior Open, where he shot 67 in the opening round but slipped to a 77 the next day and missed the cut.
Murchison won in the only playoff in tournament history in 2011, winning in extra holes over former Georgia PGA member Jeff Hull, who recently led the Furman women’s golf team to a 12th place NCAA finish in his first year as head coach.
Other top Georgia PGA pros in the field include Brian Dixon of Fox Creek, who has finished seventh and eighth the past two years; Seth McCain of Jennings Mill, who was fifth in 2014; Hank Smith of Frederica GC, who tied Claxton for fourth last year; Craig Stevens of Brookstone G&CC, a runner-up to Keppler in 2012; and Kyle Owen of Dunwoody CC, the early leader in the Player of the Year standings after runner-up finishes in both the Rivermont Championship and Atlanta Open.
Veteran Champions Tour member James Mason will look to transfer his success in senior events in the state this year to a tournament against younger opponents. Mason has won all six Georgia senior events he has competed in this year, winning the Georgia Senior Open by two shots over Skinner and going 5-for-5 in Georgia PGA Senior Division events.
Mason shot 137 at Doublegate in Albany, winning in a playoff; won by four at Willow Lake in Metter with a 133 total including a 65 in the opening round to better his age (66); shot 135 to win by three ay Mystery Valley; and won a playoff at Canongate GC at 138. His fifth straight Senior Division win came in an 18-hole event at the Standard Club. Mason also beat his age in the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open at Chattahoochee GC with a 65 in the first round.
On a long and difficult course in the Atlanta Open, Mason tied for 12th at Echelon, and Berkeley Hills is a much better fit for the former Champions Tour winner, who has a pair of top 10s at the course the past four years.