The Georgia PGA has been returning to Sea Island Golf Club for more than 25 years to hold its Section Championship, and no matter which of the club’s three courses hosts the event, the same names appear on the leader board on an annual basis.
The five players who have captured all but two Player of the Year titles since 1993 have combined for 15 victories in the Georgia PGA Championship since 1990, with the five winning once each over the last six years.
Stephen Keppler and James Mason have won the event four times apiece, with both having 15-year gaps between their third and fourth Section titles. Craig Stevens has claimed three Section Championships ranging from 2001 to 2013, with Tim Weinhart winning the event for the second time last year, more than a decade after his first victory in 2005. Sonny Skinner also has won the tournament twice since becoming eligible to compete in it in 2006.
Those five players will look to continue their dominance of the Section Championship, which will be played at the Retreat course Aug. 28-30.
With Mason in his mid-60s, Keppler, Stevens and Skinner in their mid-50s and Weinhart in his late 40s, you would think that age might be catching up with the quintet, but the four seniors among the group have all won the tournament after turning 50 and Weinhart was 47 when he won last year.
Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, won the tournament three times in the 1990s, the last two during his four-year reign as the Section’s Player of the Year, but did not win again until 2011. Beginning in 2005, Keppler put together a remarkable run in the event, placing third or better 10 straight years including his victory in 2011 and six runner-up finishes, four in a row from 2005-08. He has finished fifth and sixth the last two years.
Retreat has been the host course for the Section Championship four times since 2006, and Keppler has contended every time, finishing either second or third in all four. Keppler has not played a heavy tournament schedule in the state this year, but competed in both the Senior PGA Championship and U.S Senior Open.
Mason won the Section Championship three times in a four-year stretch from 1997-2000 before embarking on a career on the Champions Tour that spanned more than a decade. He returned to the event in 2012, and over the last three years has placed second, first and third, winning in a rain-shortened tournament at the Plantation course in 2015. This will be Mason’s first start at Retreat since the course was extensively renovated in 2001. He has dominated play in the Georgia PGA Senior Division this year and recently was a losing semifinalist in the GPGA Match Play Championship.
Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone G&CC, won the Section Championship for the first time in 2001, and has won the last two times Retreat has been the host course in 2010 and ’13. He shot 8-under 208 in 2010 to finish three ahead of Weinhart and four in front of Keppler, and again shot 208 in 2013 to edge Weinhart by one and Keppler by two. He was second in a rain-shortened tournament to Skinner in ’09, and was sixth and fourth the two previous times Retreat was the host. His runner-up finish in ’09 is one of five in the tournament dating back to 1994.
Weinhart is the tournament’s defending champion, winning by one over Skinner at Seaside with a 4-under 206 total in 2016. His first win in the event also came at Seaside in 2005. Weinhart was second behind Stevens the last two times Retreat has been the host, and finished third the first time a renovated Retreat was the site of the tournament in 2004. Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, has finished fourth or better in the Section Championship every year since 2011 including four runner-up finishes, the last three in succession from 2013-15. He has 11 finishes of fourth or better since 2002.
After collecting his ninth Georgia PGA Player of the Year title last year, Weinhart is fifth on the 2017 points list coming into the Section Championship, with a third place finish in the Atlanta Open his only strong showing in the state in 2016.
Skinner is third in the points standings and within range if first, and will be looking to move up in an event he won in 2009 at Retreat and 2012 at Plantation. He was third at Retreat in 2006, the first time he competed in the Section Championship. The 2009 event was reduced to 36 holes because of rain, with the final 18 played in December after only 18 holes were completed in August. Skinner has been a consistent performer so far this year, with his best finish fifth in the season opener at Rivermont.
There are two other players in the field with comparable records of success in the Section Championship, including one victory apiece. Augusta CC head pro Tommy Brannen captured his lone title in 1993, and has been a consistent contender ever since, placing third as recently as 2015. Brannen has three runner-up finishes in the tournament, including a playoff loss in 2002 and has 11 top 10s beginning with his victory, five in the last seven years. He tied for fifth the last time the tournament was played at Retreat in 2013.
Clark Spratlin, the Director of Golf at the Currahee Club, won at Seaside at 2008 and has 12 top 10s over the last two decades, among them a fifth place finish at Retreat in 2010. This will be the first tournament in some time for Spratlin, who has been sidelined with injuries suffered in a car accident late last year.
The only other player in the field who has won the tournament over the past decade is Frederica GC Director of Golf Hank Smith, a former assistant at Sea Island GC. Smith won by a whopping 10 shots at Seaside in 2013 and was 10th at Seaside last year.
Among the players looking to win the Section Championship for the first time is Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen, who comes into the event leading the Player of the Year points race. Owen was second in both the Atlanta Open and Rivermont Championship and reached the semifinals in the recent Match Play Championship. He has been a frequent contender in Georgia PGA events in recent years with a victory in the last tournament played at Chicopee Woods in 2014. Owen has five top 10s in the GPGA Championship since 2011, but has never finished closer than four shots behind the eventual winner.
Veteran tour pro Paul Claxton made his first appearance in the Section Championship last year and placed fourth. Claxton, who has a combined 20 years on the Web.com and PGA Tours, has been working for the past year as the head pro at Hawk’s Point in his home town of Vidalia. He finished third in the national club professional championship earlier this summer to earn a spot in the recent PGA Championship, and won the Georgia Open at Ford Plantation the week before playing in the PGA.
Along with the Georgia PGA’s qualifier for the national club pro championship, the Georgia PGA Championship is one of two events left on the 2017 schedule offering a sizeable number of points that will impact the Player of the Year standings.
Owen is leading coming into the tournament, with Brian Dixon of Fox Creek second and Skinner third. Weinhart, Claxton, Mason, Smith and Stevens are fifth through ninth in the standings, and could make big moves with victories in the Section Championship.