The Georgia PGA will hold one of the state’s longest-running tournaments – the Yamaha Atlanta Open – on one of the newer additions to the list of host courses for the state’s top golf events – Echelon Golf Club.
The tournament will be played June 13-14 on a course that is a mystery to many in the Atlanta golf community but has developed a reputation as one of the most demanding layouts in the state.
Echelon is a Rees Jones design that opened in 2006, shortly before the economic downturn that dealt a major blow to the golf industry. Echelon, which was known as the Georgia Tech Club in its formative years, ran into immediate financial difficulties and had to abandon its initial status as a private club.
The club has stabilized since its rocky early introduction, with the recent completion of a clubhouse putting Echelon on the list of potential tournament hosts of prominent events. The quality of the layout and its outstanding conditioning made it a potential tournament site from day one, but the absence of a clubhouse delayed that possibility for a decade.
Prior to the 2017 Atlanta Open, the most prominent tournament Echelon had hosted was a 2016 mini-tour event won by recent Georgia Tech standout Anders Albertson. The semi-private course is mostly known to players in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, with Echelon having filled the upscale daily fee niche in the area that has existed since White Columns went private.
When Echelon was first rated, it went straight to the top of the list of the state’s most difficult courses, and that has not changed a great deal since then. The course is rated at 77.8/154 from the tournament tees, which are listed at more than 7,500 yards, with the gold tees a little under 7,100 yards and rated at 74.9/150.
The scorecard for the Atlanta Open has the course playing 7,175 yards, with about half the tournament tees to be used along with about half the gold tees. The longest par 4 (13) and longest par 3 (15) will play from the blue tees, with the 15th still the longest of the par 3s for the tournament.
Because of the number of elevated tees, the course does not play its listed yardage, but there are several significantly uphill shots, with the shortest of the par 5s (14) playing much longer than its modest 526 yards. Two of the other par 5s will play at least 600 yards, with the long and penal 11th one of the most demanding par 5s the tournament competitors will face.
Echelon is generous off the tee, allowing the use of a driver on almost every hole, and long hitters will likely have some advantage. But the width of the fairways makes it more of a second shot course, with accurate iron play a definite requirement and a deft putting touch vital to handle the large, rolling greens that putt smoothly but don’t allow for many straight putts.
The field will consist of the state’s top club pros along with a cross-section of amateurs, including a number of collegiate players.
Two college golfers tied for first last year at St. Ives, but both lost in a playoff to Georgia PGA veteran Sonny Skinner, who repeated his 2015 victory at White Columns. Skinner, Jason Mendel and Adam Morris tied for first at 7-under 137, with Skinner winning with a birdie on the third extra hole.
Veteran amateur Bob Royak, who won the Atlanta Open at the Standard Club in 2007, was fourth at 138 along with Settindown Creek assistant Gus Wagoner. Heritage Golf Links Director of Instruction Tim Weinhart was sixth at 139, the first time he was a serious contender since an outstanding run in the tournament from 2000 to 2010.
During that stretch, Weinhart won in 2009, was second three times (twice in playoffs) and had finishes of third, fifth and seventh. Weinhart captured his ninth Georgia PGA Player of the Year title last year.
Other recent winners of the Atlanta Open include Frederica GC head pro Hank Smith (Atlanta National, 2014), Jennings Mill assistant Seth McCain (Chattahoochee GC, 2012) and Brookstone instructor Craig Stevens (Frog, 2011).
Former Champions Tour player James Mason, who won at White Columns in 2000 in a playoff over Weinhart and lost in a playoff at the Legends the next year, has contended in the tournament several times in recent years, losing in a playoff to McCain in 2012.
McCain is among a group of Georgia PGA assistant professionals who have been challenging the veterans who have been dominating tournament play for some time, including Weinhart, Skinner, Stevens, Mason and Stephen Keppler. Those five have earned Player of the Year honors every year but two from 1993 to the present. All but Keppler have won the Atlanta Open, with the tournament title the only Georgia PGA major that he has not captured.
Other assistants looking to challenge at Echelon include Georgia Golf Center’s Chris Nicol, who won the recent Georgia PGA event at Rivermont and has top-5 Atlanta Open finishes in 2014 and ’15; Capital City Club’s J.P. Griffin, who was third at Rivermont and tied for third in the Atlanta Open two years ago; Wagoner, and Cherokee T&CC’s Peter Jones, a top-10 finisher in the Atlanta Open in 2014 and ’15.
Among the college players who had entered the tournament with a few days remaining before the deadline is Nathan Mallonee, who recently completed his career at Georgia State. Mallonee has contended in previous Georgia PGA tournaments, including the 2013 Atlanta Open when he finished one shot out of a playoff.