The last two times the Georgia Open was played in Savannah, tour players from the Savannah area finished second and fourth in 2010, first and third last year.
The three Savannah golfers responsible for the four top-four finishes are all in the field for this year’s event, and will be the players to beat when the event tees off August 3 at the Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, just south of the city.
Shad Tuten, who played his college golf at Armstrong Atlantic and has since settled in Savannah, won the tournament last year with a 15-under 273 total, erasing a 3-stroke deficit after 54 holes with a final round 67 to finish three ahead of 54-hole leader Blake Palmer of Dawsonville.
Savannah native Tim O’Neal, a tour pro over the past two decades following his victory in the Georgia Amateur in 1997, was third last year at 281 after placing second at Savannah Harbor in 2010. O’Neal has played a number of years on the Web.com Tour, and is currently competing on the LatinoAmerica Tour, where he has won multiple times.
Mark Silvers tied for fourth at Savannah Harbor in 2010, but missed last year’s tournament while competing on the Web.com Tour. Like O’Neal and Tuten, Silvers is playing this year on the LatinoAmerica Tour, which is about to end its two-month winter break.
Since Georgia PGA member Stephen Keppler won the Georgia Open back-to-back in 1994 and ’95 at courses on Lake Oconee, tour players have won the Georgia Open every year since with the exception of 2004 and 2007.
Tim Weinhart, a nine-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year, edged out former Georgia PGA member Kris Blanks, who was on his way at the time to the PGA Tour, at the Legends at Chateau Elan in ’04. Three years later, Georgia PGA member Jeff Hull, who has since gone into college coaching, outdueled current PGA Tour member Luke List at Champions Retreat.
Justin Bolli and Roberto Castro were both mini-tour players soon to make it to the PGA Tour when they won in 2003 and 2009 respectively, and Samuel Del Val, the winner at Savannah Harbor in 2010, is a Web.com Tour member this year.
After Del Val’s win, Jay McLuen and Jonathan Fricke, both of whom have competed on the Web.com Tour, combined to win the next four Georgia Opens, with players not long out of college winning the last two. Fricke is in the field this week but McLuen is not.
Davin White of Locust Grove, who played his college golf at Georgia State, won at Pinetree shortly after turning pro in 2015. White plays primarily on the Open Golf Atlanta tour along with a number of the non-PGA pros entered in the Georgia Open.
Palmer is second on the Open Golf Atlanta money list this year with three wins in one-day events, with the Nos. 3 (Matt Nagy), 4 (Barrett Waters) and 5 (J.T. Griffin) players in earnings with a combined four wins also in the Georgia Open field. Waters, a former West Georgia golfer from Dallas, tied for fourth last year. Nagy, a standout at Kennesaw State from Buena Vista, was second at the Legends in 2012 and third in 2014 and ’15 at Pinetree, his home course in college. Waters tied for sixth as an amateur in 2015.
This will be the first appearance in the Georgia Open for Griffin, who played his college golf at Georgia Tech.
Also among the players to beat is Jimmy Beck, who followed Nagy to Kennesaw State from Columbus. Beck was second at Pinetree in 2014 and tied for fourth at the Ford Plantation last year. He is also playing on the LatinoAmerica Tour this year.
Several other recent collegians who have turned pro are entered in the tournament. Among them are Nathan Mallonee (Georgia State) of Lexington, Emerson Newsome (Cincinnati) of Dacula, Zack Jaworski (Vanderbilt) of Alpharetta, Drew Czuchry (Georgia Tech) of Auburn, Harrison Stewart (Georgia College) of Roswell, and teammates Dylan Freeman and Hunter Cornelius, who helped lead Coastal Georgia to an NAIA national championship. JJ Grey, Mallonee’s teammate at Georgia State, is looking to join Del Val as the second player born in Europe to win the Georgia Open after playing college golf in the state. Grey is from England and Del Val from Spain, and both are living in metro Atlanta.
Current college players Wyatt Larkin (Kennesaw State) of Morganton and McDonough’s Justin Connelly, who has transferred from Mercer to Georgia College, have won major events recently in the state. Larkin took the Yamaha Atlanta Open at Echelon and Connelly captured the Georgia Amateur at West Lake in Augusta.
Other prominent college players in the field are David Mackey (UGA) of Watkinsville, Connor Coffee (Kennesaw State) of Peachtree City, Nick Budd (Georgia State) of Woodstock and Alexander DeRosa (Georgia Southern) of Atlanta.
The top mid-amateurs in the field are Atlanta’s Chris Waters and Alpharetta’s Erik Martin, who won the most recent Georgia PGA event at Berkeley Hills.
Since Hull’s win in 2007, no Georgia PGA member has finished higher than fifth in the Georgia Open. Bill Murchison of Towne Lake Hills tied for fifth at Barnsley Gardens in 2008, with Craig Stevens of Brookstone G&CC a contender at Barnsley the next year before tying for fifth. Chris Nicol of Georgia Golf Center was a distant fifth in 2014 and tied for 10th last year with fellow assistant J.P. Griffin of Capital City Club.
Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, made repeated strong runs at winning the Georgia Open between 2000 and 2003 before winning at the Legends in ’04, but hasn’t been a serious contender since. He tied for 12th last year.
Three former veteran tour players are among the top Georgia PGA players in the field. Sonny Skinner of Spring Hill in Tifton came up one shot short of a playoff at Reynolds Landing in ’06, but like Weinhart, hasn’t been among the leaders since. James Mason was second at Jekyll Island in 1998, but joined the Champions Tour a few years later before returning to full-time play in Georgia PGA events. They will join Stevens in looking to make some noise in the event in their mid-50s, or in Mason’s case, his mid-60s.
Among the more likely contenders among the state’s club pros is Paul Claxton, who spent two decades on the Web.com and PGA Tours before taking a job in his hometown of Vidalia as the Director of Golf at Hawk’s Point, Claxton shot even par at Ford Plantation last year to finish 18th, and will be playing the following week in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte after placing third in the national club professional championship.
Other top Georgia PGA members in the field are Seth McCain of Jennings Mill, Brian Dixon of Fox Creek, Hank Smith of Frederica GC, Mark Anderson of Brunswick CC, Todd Ormsby of Highland GC and Donn Perno of Peachtree GC.
Veteran Georgia PGA member Wendell Coffee is also playing in the Georgia Open, joining his grandson Connor.
Ford Plantation is listed at 7,262 yards for the tournament, about 150 less than its maximum distance. The exceptional Pete Dye layout (one of only two in Georgia) was built in the late 1980s on property that once served as the winter home of industrialist Henry Ford, but only recently has it attracted much notice after a $7 million-plus renovation.
The tree-lined front line circles around the interior of the property with six different lakes bordering holes 2 through 7. The compact back nine is surrounded on three sides by Lake Clara, named for Ford’s wife, and was constructed on the site of a rice plantation amid the marshes.
Dye expanded the width of the fairways on the parkland style front nine in an extensive renovation, but the presence of hazards on most holes still places a premium on accuracy. Most of the water in play is outside the fairways and bordering greens with the exception of three par 3s that require carries to reach the greens but are all of modest length.
About half the par 4s have significant length, with only one of the par 5s easily reachable in two. As much of a challenge as Dye’s layout presents tee to green, there is also plenty of pressure on all facets of the short game, with some testy pitch shots around some of the slightly raised greens and some pesky pot bunkers also a factor.
The outstanding putting surfaces have both speed and slope and are firm enough to require precise approach shots to prevent potential three-putts or delicate chips or pitches. The course was favorably received by the players last year, with most of the top finishers returning for another round with Dye’s appealing but demanding creation.