Wyatt Larkin, a member of the Kennesaw State golf team, played near flawless golf over two days to win the Yamaha Atlanta Open at Echelon GC, finishing ahead of three of the top players in the Georgia PGA.
Larkin put together rounds of 68-71—139, with his 5-under total two shots ahead of Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen and three in front of Heritage Golf Links Director of Instruction Tim Weinhart and Georgia Golf Center assistant Chris Nicol.
Competing on one of the state’s most demanding layouts, Larkin did not make a bogey in the tournament until the final hole of the second round, by which time he held a 3-shot lead.
Larkin birdied three of his final six holes in the opening round to shoot a bogey-free 68, and followed with a solid 71 the next day, scoring his only birdies on the two par 5s on the front nine. His birdie at the seventh broke a three-way tie with Weinhart and Nicol, and Larkin protected his lead with 10 straight pars before taking a bogey on the difficult par-4 18th.
Meanwhile, Weinhart and Nicol struggled on the back nine after birdies on the demanding par-5 11th pulled both within one shot of Larkin’s lead. Nicol bogeyed the par-4 13th and double-bogeyed the uphill par-5 14th and Weinhart also took double bogey on the 15th. Weinhart came back with a birdie on the par-4 16th, but finished bogey-bogey to drop into a tie for third with Nicol, who also bogeyed the 18th.
Nicol, who won the first Georgia PGA individual event of 2017 at Rivermont G&CC, had the first round lead after a 6-under 66 highlighted by a 30 on the back nine, his first nine on the day. He started birdie-eagle and closed out the nine with birdies at 17 and 18 before a bogey at the par-4 first hole stalled his momentum. He got back to 6-under for the day with a birdie at the par-5 fourth.
Weinhart and Larkin were next at 68. Weinhart eagled the seventh and birdied the 16th and 18th.
With most of the state’s top college players in Columbus for the annual Southeastern Amateur, Larkin was among a relatively small number of collegians in the Atlanta Open field. Larkin, a native of Morganton, came into the Atlanta Open off an injury-plagued junior season at Kennesaw, as he missed all but the first two events on the Owls’ 2016-17 schedule with a back injury, spending several months in a full body cast
After playing in most of Kennesaw’s tournaments his first two seasons, Larkin moved into a primary role as a junior, and opened the Fall season with finishes of ninth and fourth, leading the Owls in both events. He did not play again in the 2016-17 schedule, missing out as the Owls qualified for the NCAA Championship after winning a second straight Atlantic Sun title. The Owls did not make it past regionals during Larkin’s sophomore season.
Larkin was granted a medical redshirt and will still have two seasons of eligibility left at Kennesaw State.
The first time Larkin realized he was having physical difficulty was before the final round of a tournament in Tennessee. He said he “couldn’t turn” and was experiencing pain in his spinal area. After getting treatment, he said he played “in extreme pain,” but still shot a 69 to tie for fourth.
He was examined after the tournament, and learned he had a stress fracture in his L5 vertebra, which resulted from the physical demands of the golf swing and the considerable amount of time Larkin spent on the practice range.
Larkin was in a body cast for four months and made his first full swing in early April. He made it through 18 holes for the first time about a month before the Atlanta Open. He shot 67 and 70 in two practice rounds at Echelon, and decided to make it his “first test to see whether my body could hold up” in competition.
At times, Larkin said he “felt a little fatigue” during the tournament, an expected occurrence considering his long layoff. But he was fresh mentally for the event, and stuck with his game plan and process to score an impressive victory.
The key holes for Larkin in the second round were three of Echelon’s par fives. He moved into a tie for the lead with a birdie at the fourth when his wedge shot from about 30 yards ended up less than a foot from the hole for an easy birdie to tie Weinhart and Nicol.
A 3-wood from 255 yards on the seventh left him only eight feet for eagle, and even though the putt lipped out, his birdie gave him the lead for good. When Nicol and Weinhart both double-bogeyed the 14th, Larkin’s lead increased to three shots and he showed no signs of giving up the lead down the stretch.
“I didn’t know much about the tournament until I won it and realized how much history there is with it,” Larkin said. “It’s definitely a privilege to be with these guys,” referring to past champions like Bobby Jones and Davis Love Jr.
Larkin was one of three amateurs to post top finishes in the Atlanta Open.
Harrison Stewart of Roswell, who recently completed his career at Georgia Coilege, tied Weinhart and Nicol for third at 142 with scores of 69-73. Kevin Burns of Canton, who played on the golf team this past season as a freshman at East Tennessee State, shot 73-70—143 to tie for sixth. Burns carded six birdies in the second round, with his 70 the second lowest score in the afternoon behind Owen’s 68.
Larkin is the second collegian to win the Atlanta Open since 2013, joining former Armstrong State golfer Cory Griffin, who won in a playoff over Stephen Keppler at Polo G&CC in a rain-shortened 18-hole event.
It was the second straight runner-up finish in a Georgia PGA event for Owen, but it was also the second straight tournament in which he took home first place points towards a possible Player of the Year award.
Nicol, who finished first ahead of Owen at Rivermont, is not yet a Class A professional, and is not eligible to compete for Player of the Year. He did manage to earn Assistant Player of the Year honors in 2016.
Owen, whose lone Georgia PGA win came in 2014 in a now-defunct event hosted by Chicopee Woods, has a number of top-10 finishes in the Atlanta Open over the past decade, with his best previous showing a tie for third at White Columns in 2015.
Thanks to collecting first place points in both the Rivermont Championship and Atlanta Open, Owen is well ahead in the points race, and will gain on Weinhart in the Match Play Championship, which has completed two rounds and will wrap up in August at Peachtree GC. Owen won his first two matches while the top-seeded Weinhart, a three-time tournament champion, was upset in the second round.
Owen said it is “a goal of mine to get in the mix” for Player of the Year honors. “I’ve been in the mix a couple of times and this is something I’d really like to do.”
Even though it’s early in the season, Owen is aware his standing on the points list has him in position to achieve his goal. It did not look like he would be in position for a second runner-up finish in 2017 after “a not very good first round,” but Owen came back with the low round of the day in the final round to finish second outright with first place points and money.
“That’s a good consolation,” he said.
Weinhart won the Atlanta Open in 2009 and has three runner-up finishes in the event, including two playoff losses. He will need to make a serious rally to overtake Owen in the points race if he hopes to take home his 10th Georgia PGA Player of the Year honor.
Owen was seven shots off the lead after his opening 73, but made a move with a 33 on the front nine that included an eagle on the seventh. Bogeys at 10 and 11 knocked him out of contention, but he rallied with three birdies from that point, closing out his round with back-to-back birdies at 17 and 18 to claim sole possession of second place and first place points and money ($3,700). Weinhart and Nicol both took home $2,250 for tying for second among the club pros.
Tying for sixth overall and placing fourth among the pros was Jeff Cammon of Sea Island GC, who shot 71-72—143, finishing under par for the tournament with a birdie at the 18th.
Next at 144 were Peter Jones of Cherokee Town & CC and J.P. Griffin of Capital City Club. Jones shot even par 72 in both rounds, while Griffin slipped to a 75 after opening with a 69. Griffin carded five birdies in both rounds, but was done in by a triple bogey on the fourth and a double bogey on the sixth the final day.
Sharing 10th at 145 were Country Club of the South instructor David Potts and Gus Wagoner of Ansley GC’s Settindown Creek. Both shot 71-74.
Among the players tying for 11th at 147 were Sonny Skinner, who won the Atlanta Open in both 2015 and ’16, and James Mason, who captured his lone Atlanta Open title in 2000.
Cartersville CC head pro Bill Hassell was the only player other than Owen to break 70 the second day, shooting a 69 after an opening round 81.
The tournament was presented by Bushnell/Bolle, Camelback and Levelwear.