Paul Claxton has been unable to play a great deal of golf in recent months, but his limited tournament schedule and rare visits to the practice tee have failed to negatively impact his game.
Claxton has been pre-occupied of late with trying to help save Hawk’s Point Golf Club in his hometown of Vidalia, where he is the Director of Golf. The club actually shut down for a week before re-opening, and Claxton is leading the effort to increase the club’s membership to keep it alive, while also attending to his usual duties at the facility and trying to work in a little golf for himself.
The 49-year-old Claxton, who will attempt to resume his career as a tour player later this year at Champions Tour Q-school, showed he still has plenty of game in last week’s Georgia Open at Savannah’s Ford Plantation. He scored a 4-stroke victory over a field featuring players less than half his age, breaking away from a crowded leader board the final day with a 4-under 68 to finish at 13-under 275 on a demanding Pete Dye layout.
While Claxton has been occupied off the course with his attempts to help save Hawk’s Point, he has enjoyed plenty of success on the course when he’s been able to compete. In his first individual tournament start of 2017, Claxton tied for third in the national club professional championship in Oregon, briefly taking the lead in the final round with five consecutive birdies before finishing two shots out of a playoff.
That qualified for him for this week’s PGA Championship, which is a little closer to home for Claxton at Quail Hollow in Charlotte. It will be the first ever start in the event for Claxton, who played in the U.S. Open during his 20-plus-year career as a tour pro, but never qualified for the PGA Championship during the four seasons he competed on the PGA Tour.
In Claxton’s only other starts in Georgia PGA events this year, he teamed with Drew Pittman of Forest Heights in Statesboro to win the one-day Senior-Junior tournament at Ansley GC, and shot the low score of the day in the final round to tie for fourth at Berkeley Hills.
Claxton won the Georgia Open, which was sponsored by DripFusion Pro-IV, a Georgia-based health related company, with four days of solid play that included just four bogeys over 72 holes on an outstanding course with ample amounts of hazards in play and putting surfaces matching or surpassing the speeds found at PGA Tour events.
A bogey-free 68 the first day left Claxton in a tie for fifth, three shots off the lead of recent Georgia State golfer Nathan Mallonee of Lexington. Claxton was still three back in third place after 36 holes at 138, trailing fellow former Georgia Amateur champion Jimmy Beck of Columbus, one of several entrants in the Georgia Open who is playing on the PGA Tour- sponsored LatinoAmerica Tour.
Thanks to a 4-under 32 on the back nine in the third round, Claxton pulled even with Beck after 54 holes with a 69, and went to the front early the final day with three birdies on his first six holes.
Claxton made the turn in 3-under to open a 2-stroke lead over veteran tour pro Tim O’Neal, like Claxton and Beck a former Georgia Amateur champion. O’Neal, a Savannah native and resident, has played six years on the Web.com Tour, most recently in 2014, and is a member of the LatinoAmerica Tour, where he won twice in 2013 and once last year.
O’Neal placed second in the 2010 Georgia Open at Savannah Harbor and was third last year at Ford Plantation. He was Claxton’s primary pursuer in the final round, pulling into a tie at 12-under after starting the back nine with birdies at 10 and 11 to get to 4-under for the day.
Claxton also opened the back nine with a birdie at the par-4 10th, but lost the outright lead when he bogeyed the par-5 11th after being just short of the green in two.
“I misjudged the lie,” Claxton said of the fluffy pitch shot. “I thought it was going to come out hot and I went right under it. I did the same thing on my next chip.”
Claxton, who played 16 years on the Web.com Tour and remains third on the tour in career earnings, regained the lead when O’Neal hit a poor chip from beyond the 13th green and made bogey, while Claxton holed his fifth birdie putt of the day on the hole a few minutes later. O’Neal bogeyed the 14th to drop three shots back, and Claxton parred his final five holes to preserve his advantage.
In addition to the five birdie putts, all of which came on par 4s, Claxton saved par several times with deft chips or clutch putts to earn his first win in a significant event since he scored his second Web.com victory in suburban Washington, D.C., in 2007. Claxton left the tour after the 2014 season, but hopes to resume his career as a tour player if he can finish in the top five in the finals of Champions Tout qualifying later this year. He turns 50 early in 2018.
“My style of golf, I don’t shoot many low numbers,” Claxton said. “I make a lot of pars, sprinkle in a few birdies and don’t make many bogeys. “
Not a long hitter, Claxton is unable to dominate par 5s like many of his younger counterparts, relying on the quality of his ball striking and some deft work with his putter, Claxton hit several precise iron shots to set up birdies in the final round and also made his share of birdie putts of length, enjoying a nice day on “the best greens I ever stepped foot on.”
Claxton spent the final round not knowing where he stood in relation to the other contenders, concentrating on taking care of his own business. None of the other five players who were in position to win at the start of the day shot better than 71, with O’Neal and Dylan Freeman both closing with scores of 71 to tie for second at 279 with Beck, who shot 72 in the final round.
O’Neal shot 66 the first day with an eagle and seven birdies, and stayed close to the lead the rest of the tournament before playing his last six holes in 3-over.
Beck played his college golf at Kennesaw State and won the Georgia Amateur in 2013 and was second in the Georgia Open in 2014, both at Pinetree CC, Kennesaw’s home course. He led by two after 36 holes with scores of 67-68, doing his damage on the back nine both days, where he was a combined 9-under. Three bogeys on the first three holes the final day took him out of contention, but Beck was 3-under over his last 10 holes with birdies on three of Ford Plantation’s par 5s.
Freeman, who is from Athens and is living on St. Simons Island, was a member of Coastal Georgia’s 2015 NAIA national championship team. He moved into contention with a third round 66, and briefly held a share of the lead Sunday with birdies at the first and third holes. But a bogey at the sixth and a double bogey at the watery par-3 eighth dropped him five behind Claxton at the turn. He closed within three of the lead with birdies at 12, 14 and 15, but both he and O’Neal bogeyed the testy par-3 17th to prevent them from claiming outright second.
Recent Atlanta Open champion Wyatt Larkin of Morganton and David Mackey of Watkinsville tied for fifth and shared low amateur honors at 280. Larkin, who plays Kennesaw State, was one shot back after 54 holes following a third round 67 that included a wild 5-hole stretch beginning at the par-5 11th. He eagled the 11th and the par-4 14th, which was drivable from the tee utilized that day, and also had birdies at 12 and 15, but had a double bogey at the 13th in between the eagles and birdies. He was within three of Claxton in the final round before suffering a double bogey at the 14th.
Mackey, a member of the UGA golf team, was one off the lead after an opening 66, and closed strong with four birdies on the back nine Sunday for a 70 to pull even with Larkin. Also tying for fifth was recent West Georgia golfer Barrett Waters of Dallas, who turned pro last year at the Georgia Open, where he tied for fourth. He moved into a fifth place tie with a 66 Sunday that included six birdies in an 8-hole stretch beginning at the fifth, the last four in succession.
Tying for eighth at 281 was Savannah’s Mark Silvers, and recent college golfers Zack Jaworski and Drew Czuchry, both Alpharetta residents. Both Silvers and Czuchry shot 67 in the final round, with Czuchry, a former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket, carding a pair of eagles highlighted by a hole-out from the fairway on 14. Jaworski, who played at Vanderbilt, moved to 9-under for the tournament with an eagle at the par-5 11th in the final round, but bogeyed three of his last five holes.
Like O’Neal and Beck, Silvers is playing the LatinoAmerica Tour this year, as is fellow Savannah resident Shad Tuten, who won last year’s Georgia Open by three with a 273 total and tied for 19th this year at 290.
Two-time Georgia Open champion Jonathan Fricke of Peachtree Corners shot a final round 68 with an eagle at the 11th to finish 11th at 282.
Claxton’s winner’s check was $8,000, with O’Neal, Beck and Freeman taking home $4,567 for sharing second. While O’Neal and Beck have this week off before resuming play next week on the LatinoAmerica Tour in Paraguay, Claxton will be playing with golf’s best players in the PGA Championship.
“I played there last week and it’s a monster,” Claxton said of Quail Hollow, which will play about 7600 yards with a deep spread of rough.
“I’m just going to enjoy myself and see old friends I haven’t seen in some time,” said Claxton, whose last of four seasons on the PGA Tour came in 2008. “I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”
When Claxton returns home, he will resume his push to help save Hawk’s Point.
“It’s a tough challenge to keep a golf course open in small town USA,” Claxton observed. He said the course has been open the past few weeks after being closed for seven days, and Claxton has been making the rounds of local organizations to seek support for Hawk’s Point.
“The owner gave me 60 days to find new members,” Claxton said. “I need to find 100 in the next month and I’ve got 40. The community has responded but we still need a good bit of help.”
Claxton is the fifth player to win both the Georgia Amateur and Georgia Open, joining Tommy Aaron, Lyn Lott, Hugh Royer, Jr., and Louis Brown