Going to the final round of the Georgia Open at Ford Plantation outside Savannah, former Armstrong Atlantic golfer Shad Tuten had a specific game plan.
Tuten, a pro for a little less than a year, began the round three shots off the lead, but was determined to concentrate on his game and pay as little attention as possible to how he stood in relation to the leader.
That turned out to a little more difficult than Tuten planned, as he was paired in the final group with third round leader Blake Palmer.
“I didn’t want to know where I was,” Tuten said the day after his victory. “I just wanted to play my own game.”
The final round was a two-player battle between Palmer and Tuten, who had separated themselves from the field after three rounds. Palmer, a mini-tour player from Dawsonville, led at 15-under 201 after three consecutive scores of 67, with Tuten matching Palmer’s 67s the first two days before a third round 70.
Recent West Georgia golfer Barrett Waters of Dallas, who made his professional debut in the Georgia Open, was the third member of the final group in the fourth round, but was a distant seven shots off the lead.
But after having his way with the challenging Pete Dye layout for three days, Palmer “did not have a great day,” Tuten said, and was unable to match his previous level of play. Palmer lost his lead when he went double bogey-bogey on holes 5 and 6, with Tuten taking the lead for the first time when he reached the par-5 ninth in two and two-putted for birdie.
Palmer briefly reclaimed a share of the lead with a birdie at the par-5 11th, but Tuten hit it close for birdie on the par-3 12th and expanded his lead to two shots with a clutch par putt at the 14th. Palmer came back with a birdie at 15 to trim Tuten’s lead to one, but Tuten responded with a birdie at the par-5 16th and followed with a 7-iron to tap-in range for birdie on the par-3 17th to lock up his victory and the first place check for $7500.
Tuten shot 69 in the final round , with his lone bogey coming at the difficult par-4 18th. He finished with a 15-under 273 total, three in front of Palmer and eight shots clear of Savannah native Tim O’Neal, who placed second in the Georgia Open in 2010, the last time it was held in Savannah.
The victory was by far the most significant of Tuten’s young career, and he said, “Words can’t describe,” what winning the Georgia Open means to him. He said the key to his victory was three hard-earned pars the final day that accounted for the margin between him and Palmer.
“Blake is a great player, but he’s pretty aggressive and the pins were extremely difficult in the last round,” Tuten observed. “I’ve never been the best ball-striker. I’ve relied on my short game.”
Tuten was born in Augusta and grew up in Elberton, and prior to his victory in the Georgia Open, he said his biggest accomplishment in golf was winning the Augusta City Amateur twice. Tuten enjoyed a successful college and amateur career, winning three times at Armstrong before graduating last year and three times in non-collegiate amateur events. He lost in a playoff in the 2014 Southeastern Amateur in Columbus and contended early in the 2015 Dogwood before closing out his amateur career last summer by qualifying for the U.S. Amateur.
“That was the biggest thing for me,” he said of making it into the field of the U.S. Amateur in his final attempt. “I wanted to give it one last shot before I turned pro and I made it.”
Since turning pro last fall, Tuten has played on various regional tours, and plans to take his first shot at qualifying for the Web.com Tour later this year. He says he has “jumped around a lot, but I’m not a member of any tour. There are so many of them.”
The Georgia Open was hampered by rain the first two days, with the second round not completed until Saturday morning.
Palmer and Tuten shared the lead after the rain-delayed first round at 67 along with Georgia PGA apprentice Chris Nicol, an assistant at Georgia Golf Center in Roswell. Palmer had eight birdies in his opening round, and was 7-under for the round before a double-bogey at the sixth, his 15th hole of the day. He was the only one of three early leaders to complete his round Thursday. Tuten birdied four of his last six holes for a bogey-free 67, with Nicol running off five birdies in a six-hole stretch beginning at the eighth.
Tuten had the lead at 10-under 134 when the second round was halted Friday, with Palmer also 10-under with three holes to play. Tuten again shot a bogey-free 67 while Palmer carded seven more birdies in his 67, giving up the outright lead when he bogeyed the 18th Saturday morning.
Adairsville’s Deven Broadaway, the 2015 GSGA Public Links Champion, moved into third place at 136 with a 66, with O’Neal fourth at 137 after also shooting 66 with eight birdies. O’Neal is a veteran tour player with Web.com Tour experience, and has won three times since 2013 on the LatinoAmerica Tour. Just prior to turning pro, O’Neal won the 1997 Georgia Amateur.
Also shooting 66 in the second round was Hunter Cornelius of Ringgold, a member of Coastal Georgia’s 2014 NAIA Championship golf team. Cornelius was tied for eighth at 140 and wound up in a tie for 12th at 286. Waters, Nicol and Savannah’s Drew Aimone were tied for fifth after 36 holes at 139.
Palmer, who played his college golf at Gardner-Webb, took control of the tournament with a third straight 67 to lead Tuten by three, Waters by seven, Aimone by eight and Broadaway by nine heading to the final round.
The 30-year-old Palmer has status on the Web.com Tour, but finished well down the list in the finals of qualifying last year and has not been able to get into a tournament this season. He plays primarily on the Open Golf Atlanta tour, a series of mostly one-day events at courses in the metro area, and leads the tour’s money list this year with wins at Echelon and Eagle’s Brooke along with four runner-up finishes.
Palmer and Tuten matched pars for the first six holes of the third round, but after Tuten bogeyed the seventh, Palmer reeled off four birdies in a row and added an eagle on the par-5 16th. Tuten carded three birdies on the back nine to stay close, while Waters eagled the 11th and shot 69 to move into third at 208.
O’Neal managed just one birdie in a third round 74 to fall out of contention, but came back with a final round 70 to place third at 281. The highlight of O’Neal’s final round was a hole-out for eagle on the par-4 15th.
Five players tied for fourth at 283, including Aimone, Broadaway and Waters. Also finishing at 283 was former Kennesaw State golfer Jimmy Beck of Columbus and Ben Kishigian of Warner Robins. Beck won the Georgia Amateur at Pinetree, his home course in college, in 2013 and was second in the Georgia Open at Pinetree the next year. He closed with scores of 69-68, combining for 11 birdies the final two days.
Nicol and Cherokee T&CC assistant J.P. Griffin tied for ninth at 284 and shared low club pro honors. Nicol shot 74-71 the final two days, shooting 4-under 32 on the back nine in the fourth round after carding four birdies and four bogeys on the incoming nine the day before, with his only par coming at the 18th. Griffin shot 67 in the third round, playing his final 10 holes that day in 6-under.
Georgia State golfer Nathan Mallonee of Lexington was low amateur, placing 11th at 285. Mallonee shot 69 in the third round and was in a position to tie for fourth until he bogeyed his final two holes Saturday for a 73.
Tying Cornelius for 12th at 286 was Zach Caldwell of Alpharetta, who shot 67 in the second round, and 2004 Georgia Open champion Tim Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links. Weinhart shot 69 in the first and third rounds and was in position for a top-5 finish before shooting 41 on the front nine the final day. He rebounded to shoot 2-under on the back with an eagle on the 11th.
Kane Whitehurst of Duluth was second among the amateurs and tied for 15th overall at 287. Whitehurst was a member of Chattahoochee’s state high school football championship team in 2010 and played in college as a wide receiver at South Carolina.
The only player to match par for the tournament was Paul Claxton, who spent two decades playing on the PGA and Web.com Tours before joining the club pro ranks at Hawk’s Point in Vidalia. Claxton was 17th at 288.
The par-72 Ford Plantation layout played around 7,250 yards for the tournament, with the cut coming at 5-over 149.
Among the scores of other notable players were:
291: amateur Chris Waters and former Mercer golfer James Beale; 292: former Vanderbilt golfer Zach Jaworski; 293: former Mercer golfer Trey Rule; 294: former U.S. Senior amateur champion Doug Hanzel, recent Georgia Amateur champion Colin Bowles and veteran Georgia PGA member Sonny Skinner; 298: Georgia PGA members Brian Dixon and John Wade; 299: veteran Georgia PGA member James Mason and former Kennesaw State golfer Matt Nagy; 300: veteran Georgia PGA member Danny Elkins; 301: Ford Plantation head pro Ryan Skipton and fellow Savannah area PGA pro James Walden; 303: former Georgia State golfer and defending champion Davin White and Georgia PGA member Mark Anderson.