There wasn’t much doubt who was the best player in the field in the Georgia PGA’s Rivermont Championship, played May 8 in the suburbs of north Fulton.
Chris Nicol, an assistant at Georgia Golf Center in Roswell, shot 8-under 134 with scores 68-66 to win the one-day, 36-hole event by six strokes over Kyle Owen, whose second round 69 was the only other score in the 60s in the afternoon.
Nicol shared the first round lead with Capital City Club assistant J.P. Griffin, with Georgia PGA veteran and 2018 Georgia Golf Hall of Fame inductee Sonny Skinner next at 69 along with Anthony Cordes of Cherokee Town and CC, a recent addition to the Georgia PGA from Pinehurst.
While Griffin put together six birdies in the morning round and was 5-under until a pair of late bogeys, Nicol’s 68 was mostly uneventful, as he parred 12 of his first 13 holes and made it through the round without a bogey.
Nicol continued his bogey-free streak in the afternoon, but added five birdies to his scorecard, as the putts that were just missing in the morning found the hole in the afternoon – at least some of them.
With the exception of two errant tee shots, Nicol played flawlessly in the afternoon, and his score could have been several shots lower had he made just a few more of his numerous excellent birdie opportunities.
Although he hit provisional tee shots after the errant drives at holes 10 and 15, Nicol was able to find his original ball both times and was able to escape with a pair of pars. He had to hit a considerable hook for his second shot on the par-5 10th from behind a tree and the ball rolled into an awkward lie near the edge of a fairway bunker.
Nicol was unable to get his third shot to the putting surface, ending a streak of 27 straight holes in which he hit the green in regulation. He managed to save par with a delicate putt and was more fortunate on the 15th, with his ball coming to rest in a clearing with an open path to the green.
“That was some of the best golf I’ve played for years,” said Nicol, who scored his third Georgia PGA victory and his first in a non-inaugural event. Nicol won the first Championship at Berkeley Hills in 2010, edging Skinner by a shot with an 8-under 136 total.
Nicol also captured the title in the first Rivermont Championship in 2014, shooting 6-under 136 before winning a playoff over Travis Nance, with Skinner again just one back along with nine-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year Tim Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links. Since then, Nicol has shed at least 85 pounds but has retained his golf game.
Unlike his two previous Georgia PGA wins, Nicol went mostly unchallenged on his road to victory, needing only the first six holes of the second round to go from a tie for the lead to a 4-stroke margin over all three of his playing partners.
Nicol immediately went to the front in the afternoon round with a birdie on the opening hole while Griffin made bogey, one of five bogeys or double bogeys he suffered on the round to offset five birdies. The long-hitting Griffin overpowered Rivermont with his length off the tee, but struggled on the greens and suffered a pair of doubles from just off the putting surface after drawing difficult lies in a bunker and the rough.
With four birdies in a 6-hole stretch beginning at the demanding par-5 seventh, which he hit in two, Griffin was within three shots of Nicol with six holes to play. But he missed an opportunity to reduce Nicol’s margin even further at the par-4 13th, missing a birdie putt while Nicol saved par after hitting his approach over the green.
Any hopes Griffin had of catching Nicol ended at the short par-3 14th when he took his second double after missing the green on the descending hill to the right. Nicol’s tee shot was perfectly on line about 12 feet short of the hole for his fourth birdie of the round.
Nicol secured his win with a 3-under 32 on the back nine, beginning with a birdie on the short, par-4 11th where he drove the green on the fly. His final birdie came on the 16th, when he trickled in a downhill putt of about six feet after a superb approach shot.
After he pulled his tee shot on 15, Nicol went with iron off the tee on the downhill 16th, and still had a short iron for his second shot.
“As far as I’m hitting it right now, I’m not forcing it,” Nicol said. “I have no pressure to do anything crazy off the tee. Rivermont plays firm and is not overly long, so I can back off my driver. “
Nicol, who turns 31 this month, made one earlier attempt at playing professionally, but was unsuccessful in his effort, and has put a possible second attempt on the back burner while he slowly progresses toward earning his Class A PGA status, which would provide him with more options within the club professional ranks.
“I’ve been out there before and I know where my game needs to be,” Nicol observed. “I need to be able to do this every day. I would have to play the rest of the season like this before I thought about it.
“But the first thing is to get my Class A.”
Nicol says Georgia Golf Center co-owners Danny Elkins and Chris Asbell “have taken care of me. I’ve learned a lot from Danny and Chris.” Nicol hopes to achieve his Class A status at some point in 2018, and until then he will continue to play the Georgia PGA events he is eligible for that don’t require Class A status.
Because he has not yet achieved Class A status, Nicol is not eligible to earn Player of the Year points, which is fortunate for veteran Georgia PGA members like Weinhart, Skinner and Owen, who will be among the main contenders for 2017 Player of Year honors.
Skinner placed fifth at Rivermont with scores of 69-73—142, with Weinhart sixth at 72-72—144. Owen, the head pro at Dunwoody CC, was the lone non-assistant among the top four finishers,
Nicol, Griffin and Ansley assistant Jacob Tilton, who played his college golf at Armstrong Atlantic, will all likely be factors in Georgia PGA events this year, with Tilton tying for third with Griffin at 141 after scores of 71-70.
Cordes was seventh at 69-76—145, with Big Canoe head pro Joe Finemore eighth at 71-75—146. David Noto of Clarkesville tied for ninth at 75-72—147 to earn low amateur honors by four shots.
Nicol earned $2,000 for his victory, with the tournament sponsored by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which has been involved with the event since it was first played in 2014.