The GSGA Championship returns to the Georgia coast for the first time since 1998, and the event, scheduled for July 9-12, has changed markedly since it was last played at Sea Island Golf Club in 1989.
The last time the Georgia Amateur was played at Sea Island GC, Allen Doyle was nearing the end of his 13-year reign as the state’s top amateur, winning six times and finishing second four times between 1978 and 1990.
Danny Yates won the ’89 Georgia Amateur at Sea Island GC, making the Yates family 3-for-3 when the GSGA played its championship event on St. Simons Island. His father Dan and uncle Charlie won the GSGA Championship in the 1930s at the pre-renovation Sea Island Golf Club, with this year’s Georgia Amateur the first one played on the extensively re-designed Tom Fazio Seaside layout.
Doyle won his sixth and final Georgia Amateur the next year, but the success the state’s mid-amateurs had enjoyed in the event did not end with his departure from amateur golf in the early 1990s.
Carter Mize won back-to-back GSGA Championships in 1992 and ’93, and Yates captured the title for a third time in ’95, with all three of his victories coming in different decades.
During the post-Doyle 1990s, the tournament champions were almost equally divided between mid-amateurs like Mize, Yates, Bill Roberts and Rick Cloninger and college players, at least two of whom are still playing professionally (Paul Claxton and Tim O’Neal).
Roberts and Cloninger won back-to-back in 1998 and ’99, with Roberts surviving a three-way playoff at Sea Island’s Ocean Forest course with fellow mid-am Jeff Knox and future PGA Tour player John Engler.
Since Cloninger’s victory, the state’s collegiate contingent has taken control of the tournament, winning all but a handful of times over the past 15 years. Many of the college-age winners were already well known in Georgia amateur circles and have gone to successful pro careers at a young age.
That group includes current PGA Tour players Brian Harman (2005), Harris English (’07) and Russell Henley (2008, ’09), who have four Walker Cup appearances and five PGA Tour victories among them. David Denham began a six-year run of current or former UGA golfers t to win the GSGA Championship in 2004, but the tournament has also had winners from state colleges with lower profiles.
Colleges represented over the past two decades include Georgia Southern (Adam Thomas, 1995), Georgia State ((Jack Croyle, 2000), Augusta State (Michael Webb, 2001), Kennesaw State (Jimmy Beck, 2013) and Columbus State (Robert Mize, 2014).
Lee Knox (Jeff’s son) won in 2010 and ’12 while a member of the golf team at Alabama, but unlike all but a handful of the other college players who have won the tournament, did not turn pro almost immediately after graduating.
Harman, English and Henley were either about to enter Georgia or early in their college careers, with Harman and Henley both GSGA Junior champions. All three were already among the state’s most prominent amateurs when they won the tournament. But a number of other recent and current high profile college players from the state have focused their Summer schedules more on national amateur tournaments, opening the door for players from smaller schools or those with less impressive resumes.
Beck is the most prominent college player to win the GSGA Championship since Henley in ’09, but his participation in 2013 was largely predicated on the tournament being played at Pinetree Country Club, the home course for Kennesaw State.
While not all of the state’s top college players have played in the Georgia Amateur in recent years, the tournament fields have not lacked for talented participants from Georgia, Georgia Tech and all the other Division 1 schools from the Peach State.
Georgia Tech’s Anders Albertson and Seth Reeves both had top-5 finishes in 2011, and Georgia’s Sepp Straka has back-to-back top 10s the past two years, with UGA freshman Zach Healy in the top 15 both years prior to enrolling in Athens. Mercer (Trey Rule) and Kennesaw State (Kelby Burton) both had players tie for second last year at Idle Hour in Macon, with Georgia Southern also represented in the top 10 (Matt Mierzejewski).
The depth of the state’s college talent was evident last year, when a player from a Division II school won. Armstrong Atlantic has had players contend in recent tournaments (Travis Williamson, Ridge Purcell), with the state’s top junior golfers also figuring prominently. Will Chandler was part of a four-way tie for second last year, with several other players yet to begin their college careers playing well enough to finish in the top 15, guaranteeing spots in this year’s field.
Since Cloninger moved to South Carolina following his win in 1999, the most consistent contender among the state’s mid-am contingent has been Dalton’s David Noll, who won in 2003 and 2011, was runner-up in 2005, ’09 and ’12 and has been out of the top 10 just once in the tournament since 2002. Noll was unable to play in the recent GSGA Mid-Amateur Championship due to a hand injury, and his status for the Georgia Amateur is uncertain.
Although the only other mid-am player to win the GSGA Championship since 2003 is Bill Brown in ’06, they have not been absent from contention. Georgia Southern golf coach Carter Collins was part of the four-way tie for second last year, and Bonaire’s Stan Gann had the lead going to the final round.
Augusta’s Jeff Knox has been a frequent contender over the years, tying for third as recently as 2013, with runner-up finishes in 1998 at Ocean Forest, 2006 and ’07. Chris Waters, Billy Mitchell, Matt Russell and Mark Strickland have also had top finishes in the tournament in recent years, but have been unable to hold off the charge of the talented and deep group of college players from the state.
Ten qualifiers were scheduled for the tournament in June, with members of the state’s top college teams among the entrants. Among the college golfers qualifying were Georgia’s Greyson Sigg and Parker Derby, Kennesaw State’s Chris Guglielm and Wyatt Larkin, Georgia State’s Nathan Mallonee, Damon Stephenson and Gus Wagoner and Georgia Southern’s Henry Mabbett.
Scott Wolfes, the top player on Georgia Southern’s team in recent seasons and a St. Simons resident, is exempt for the tournament and will be among the favorites. Wolfes, who has completed his college career, won the GSGA Junior Championship in 2009 on Sea Island Golf Club’s Retreat course, and repeated his title the following year in Columbus.
Layne Williams, the GSGA’s Senior Director of Rules and Competition, says the par-70 Seaside course will play to its full distance of over 7,000 yards, although tees may be adjusted from day to day depending on the wind conditions, always a major factor along the Georgia coast.
Seaside, which hosts the annual PGA Tour McGladrey Classic along with the SEC Championship, features mostly generous fairways and is not especially long by modern standards. But the ocean breezes, abundance of marshes, hazards and sand dunes in play and some demanding greens complexes will test the state’s top amateurs.
The course is capable of yielding relatively low scores, but with only two par 5s, neither of which is easily reachable in two, players have to earn their birdies with precise approach shots and a deft putting touch. A quality short game is also required, as the greenside bunkers are deep and many of the putting surfaces are bordered by run-offs to chipping areas that provide several options.
The greens are generally on the large side with plenty of slope, and Williams says the typically quick putting surfaces “will be as fast as they need to be,” although he admits he will be “very careful” about green speeds and hole locations if the wind kicks up.