For the past two decades, Stephen Keppler has started his competitive season in the Pot O’Gold Pro-Am at Sunset Country Club in Moultrie.
Club professionals from Georgia and surrounding states annually bring a team of their top amateur members with them to South Georgia for the event, which features competitions for low pro, low am and low team.
Coming into this year, Keppler had won low pro honors eight times and had been part of the winning team three times. Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta Country Club, made it nine Pot O’ Gold pro titles this year, although it came in the senior division for the first time, as he shared honors with Craig Stevens. The two also tied for second among the club pros.
Keppler also was part of a fourth victory for Marietta Country Club since 2003 in the team competition. But after two decades of being a dominant figure in the popular season-opening tournament, the veteran club pro may no longer be the most prominent Keppler on the Marietta Country Club team.
Jonathan Keppler, a senior at Kennesaw Mountain High School, won his second straight low amateur title in the Pot O’Gold, with his 10-under 206 total for 54 holes helping to lift his father’s team to a narrow one-stroke victory with a 31-under 185 total, including scores of 61 in the first and third rounds .
The younger Keppler’s total was matched by Kinderlou Forest pro Jared Davis, who also shot 206, 10 shots lower than the next best club pro. Jonathan helped make his dad a nice chunk of change as the pro on the winning team, and also took home plenty of merchandize for his first place finishes in the amateur and team competitions.
“It’s always fun to go down there for the first event of the season,” the elder Keppler says. “And it’s nice to get away for a couple of days.”
In recent years, the event has also taken on a father/son element for Keppler, who is not as single-minded as he used to be because of the presence of Jonathan on the team.
“I find myself watching him and helping him, and as a result, my game is not quite as important as it used to be,” Keppler says. “I’ve taken a back seat the last two years because he played great.
“Last year he shot a 63, and this year he played well all three days.”
Under those circumstances, Keppler says, “You can lose some focus in your game, but that’s OK. It’s a matter of concentrating a little better. You root for your teammates, but you want to focus on your own game more than your teammates, even if it’s your son.”
In order to lessen the distractions and avoid potential familial conflicts as much as possible, father and son don’t ride together in the same cart. Keppler also says he and his adult amateur teammates “treat Jonathan like he’s another member of the team.”
Jonathan is one of just a relatively small number of teen-agers who has competed in the tournament, but his dad says he is accustomed to being in a mostly adult environment.
“He’s handled it really well,” Keppler said. “Just look at the scores he’s posted.”
Growing up, Jonathan got used to playing with a father who was one of the state’s most talented players among the club professional ranks. Now, his father is having to get accustomed to watching his teen-age son blow it past him off the tee and shoot the kind of scores he used to when he was at the top of his game.
“The kids now hit it so far,” Keppler says admiringly. “They can get to par fives in two with medium irons and can shorten holes to set up a lot more birdie opportunities. “
Jonathan has been one of the state’s top junior players for several years, but is about to leave junior golf and will begin his college career this Summer at Florida State. Both his parents went to school in Tallahassee, and he will join his older sister Jordan, who is a manager for the FSU golf team.
Keppler came from his native England to play college golf at Florida State, and followed his future wife Karen to Atlanta. He worked as an assistant at Dunwoody Country Club and as the head pro at Summit Chase in Snellville before taking the job at Marietta Country Club.
Some 30 years after he completed his education and college golf career, Keppler and his family still retain close ties with his alma mater.
“Jordan went to her first FSU game when she was six days old, and Jonathan has been going to their golf camp since he was 10 or 11.”
Jonathan will again be at the Seminoles’ camp this Summer, but this time will serve in a counselor’s role, assisting the school’s head golf coach.
Keppler says he “never put any pressure” on his son to attend Florida State, but did not need to steer him in that direction. He says Jonathan has been committed to the FSU golf program “since he was 15 or so.”
Having a father/son relationship transform into coach/player can be problematic, but Keppler has avoided the trap of letting the two become a problem.
“I’ve made a conscious effort to give him his room,” Keppler says. “If he needs help he can ask.”
Jonathan works with Michael Berning, an instructor at Marietta County Club. When his son is in need of a lesson, Keppler says if he does observe, “I watch from the back. I try to stay as far away as I can.
“I’ve been around golf all my life and I’ve seen how parents handle their kids. There are a lot of good ones that stay out of the way, but there are some that are overbearing. I’ve seen the negative side and I’d hate to be like that.”
Father and son have played a lot of golf since Jonathan was a youngster, with Jonathan advancing from riding with his did while Stephen was playing in a tournament, to competing in the same event.
Having his son as part of the winning team in the Pot O’ Gold made the victory “a little more special,” Keppler said. “Any time you can win with one of your children, it’s neat. You can do that in golf. I’m not sure how many other sports there are where you can compete with your son or daughter.”
The Kepplers are not the first father-son combo to compete in the Pot O’ Gold, nor are they the most prominent. Bob Duval and his son David played in the event, as did Hugh Royer Jr. and Hugh III, with the elder Duval and Royer both pros on winning teams and the younger Royer winning the amateur title before joining his father in making it to the PGA Tour.
Both Royers are among a long list of the state’s top amateurs since the 1950s who list the Pot O’ Gold among their victories. Allen Doyle was low amateur four times as was David Noll, with both players multiple Georgia Amateur champions. Carter Mize, Griff Moody and Bill Brown also won both the Pot O’ Gold and Georgia Amateur, with Dave Womack and Jim Stuart capturing USGA Mid-Amateur titles along with Pot O’ Gold low am victories.
Keppler’s list of career titles extends well beyond his success at Sunset. He was the Georgia PGA’s Player of the Year from 1993-96, winning two Georgia Opens, two Georgia PGA Championships, the Georgia PGA Match Play Championship and an event at Griffin Country Club where he played his last 10 holes in the opening round in 10-under to shoot a 62.
After going some 13 years without a victory in the Section event, Keppler has won his fourth Section Championship and two other events since 2011, bringing his career total to 16 individual titles, including last year’s Georgia PGA Senior Championship.
That victory earned Keppler a spot in the Senior PGA Professional National Championship, and he played well enough in that event to qualify for the 2015 Senior PGA Championship. Keppler made four appearances in the PGA Championship, narrowly missing the cut in 2001 at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Keppler’s signature tournament performance came in the 1995 BellSouth Classic at Atlanta Country Club, where he came closer to victory than any club professional has in a PGA Tour event in 40-plus years, finishing third and contending until late in the final round.