Following a brilliant 7-under 65 by Kennesaw State signee Takafumi Shimoji in the first round of the Yamaha Atlanta Open at Pinetree Country Club, there was a 4-stroke gap between the leader and a trio of players tied for second at 69.
There were about 30 players within five strokes of second place, but that still left seven to nine shots to make up for those who scored between 72 and 74 in the first round.
Shimoji, one of the state’s top junior golfers, was a late entrant into the field at the request of Kennesaw State coach Bryant Odom, and did not have much experience playing competitively in non-junior events, let along playing from the lead in the final round
After what he described as “a miracle” effort the first day, which included nine birdies and an eagle, Shimoji unsurprisingly was a little more mortal in the final round. He did not play badly, but on a demanding layout like Pinetree’s, being just a little off can result in a score in the mid-70s.
A final round 76 by the tournament leader left the door open for players as far back as nine strokes at the start of the day with a chance to win, and several players made strong runs at victory.
With a final round of 68, Coastal Georgia golfer Eli Scott came from back in the pack to finish at 4-under 140 and win one of the state’s oldest and most prestigious titles, edging out Shimoji and three other golfers by one shot.
Robby Bruns, an assistant pro at Augusta National, fired a final round 67, the low score of the day, to share second at 141 and earn low pro honors and the first place check of $3,800. Also tying for second was Justin Kim of Rome, a member of the golf team at Kennesaw State, Marietta mid-amateur Matthew Hayes and Shimoji.
Bruns made a big run in the middle of the final round with four straight birdies beginning on the eighth hole, but made only one more birdie the rest of way on the short, par-5 16th. His 74 in the first round included a costly double bogey on his final hole, the difficult par-4 18th.
Like Bruns, Kim did not have a bogey on his scorecard the final day, shooting 4-under 68, but was unable to birdie the vulnerable 16th. He opened with a 73 with 9-hole scores of 41-32. He made a double bogey on the short par-4 fifth and a triple bogey on the reachable par-5 ninth, but rebounded with six birdies on the back nine against two bogeys, with only one par on the incoming nine.
Hayes, who played in college at Furman and won last year’s GSGA Match Play Championship, got to 4-under for the tournament with a birdie at the par-5 11th and had the outright lead on the back nine. But his only bogey of the day at the par-4 15th, one of Pinetree’s tougher holes, cost him a spot in the playoff. He also failed to birdie the 16th and closed with a 70 after a first round 71.
The other serious contender the final day was Achasta assistant Matt Elliott, coming off a win in the Georgia PGA season opener a few weeks earlier at Chattahoochee GC. Elliott finished sixth overall and second among the pros with scores of 70-72—142, closing within a shot of Scott’s lead in the clubhouse with birdies at 16 and 17 before finishing with a bogey at the 18th. He took home second place money of $2,600.
Scott was seven shots off Shimoji’s lead after an opening 72 that including 16 pars, a lone bogey on the par-4 13th and his only birdie of the day on his final hole – the par-5 ninth. After his only bogey of the final round at the lengthy par-3 fourth, Scott moved into contention with birdies at 5 and 9, two of Pinetree’s better scoring opportunities, and reached both back-9 par 5s (11 and 16) in two for a pair of 2-putt birdies.
That got him to 3-under for the tournament, and he followed with what he described as “my best shot of the day, an 8-iron right the flag.” Scott’s tee shot left him inside three feet for birdie and when he holed that putt and a clutch putt of around 7 feet for par at 18, he was in the clubhouse at 4-under, a score no other player could match.
“I had no idea,” Scott said the par putt at 18 that gave him the victory. “I knew I was around the lead, but it probably helped” that he didn’t know that putt was for an outright win. “If I knew what it was for, it would have been a lot tougher.”
Scott played well for two days, but did not hole a lot of putts other than a pair of 10-footers for birdie on the front nine in Wednesday’s final round. After his birdie at 11, he found out he was only two shots off the lead, and moved in front with his back-to-back birdies at 16 and 17.
Winning the Atlanta Open, which includes some of the state’s most prominent names in golf among its past champions, “is definitely an honor,” Scott said. “It’s great to have my name up there with those big names.”
Scott, who is from Hartwell in the northeast portion of the state, said the Georgia PGA Junior Tour “got me started in golf,” and was proud to add one of the organization’s biggest events to his resume. His biggest previous win came during his recent freshman season at Coastal Georgia, where he won one of the top tournaments at the NAIA level in Las Vegas.
In addition to his victory in Las Vegas, Scott had six other top-10 finishes his freshman season including two seconds, a third and a fourth, and was selected as a first team All-American, coming into the NAIA Championship as the No. 3 -ranked player in the country. He helped lead Coastal Georgia to seven team titles during the 2018-19 season, with the Mariners placing second at nationals.
The round of the tournament was the 65 the first day by Shimoji that included four bogeys, three on 3-putts. He was 5-under on Pinetree’s par 5s including an eagle at the 16th to begin an eagle-birdie-birdie finish on the final three holes.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Shimoji said of his 65. “That was all I had.”
Following up around like that “is not an easy thing to do,” Shimoji observed. “I never expected to shoot a 65. I tried to just show up and play (the final round) and not think about winning.”
Early bogeys at holes 2 and 3 got Shimoji off to a rocky start, but seven of the other eight players in the final three groups were also over par after three holes, with Hayes the lone exception. Shimoji settled in and played the next eight holes in even par to retain his lead, making birdie at the par-5 11th with a nice chip-and-run. But he missed the green on holes 12 and 13 and bogeyed both, and lipped out a short birdie putt at the 14th.
Shimoji had to lay up at the 16th, but hit a beautiful third shot to a few feet for birdie to pull even with Scott, who had already completed his round. Shimoji’s tee shot on 17 found a greenside bunker and resulted in a costly bogey, and his drive at the dogleg left par-4 18th also wound up in the sand. He hit a solid second shot to the front of the green. but with the pin all the way on the back, his hopes of tying Scott with a birdie were remote.
Despite letting his first round lead slip away, Shimoji was not discouraged with his finish, and considered it an accomplishment to place second against a field of considerably more experienced golfers. He also appreciated his introduction to Pinetree, which will be his home course while he plays on the golf team at Kennesaw State, which is almost next door to the golf course.
“I love it,” Shimoji said of Pinetree, “Being here every day will really make my game better.”
Shimoji moved to Suwanee from Japan with his family at the age of 12, and has been a top player on various regional and national junior tours since his early teens. He is among the state’s top-ranked juniors and should challenge for playing time as a freshman at Kennesaw State, which will be without three senior starters from the 2018-19 team.
Among the seniors is Wyatt Larkin, the 2017 Atlanta Open champion who tied for seventh earlier this week at Pinetree with scores of 72-71—143. He closed fast Wednesday with four consecutive birdies beginning with the 14th hole.
Bruns made his Georgia PGA debut in last year’s Atlanta Open, tying for sixth among the club pros, and closed out 2018 with a tie for third in the Section’s qualifier for the national club pro championship, in which he recently competed.
Although there was a 7-shot difference in his scores the first two rounds, Bruns said he played well both days, but “putted extremely well” in the final round, when he carded five birdies against no bogeys. He had just one birdie the previous day, with what could have been an even-par round spoiled by his closing double bogey on the 18th.
Bruns was among the early starters in the afternoon wave for the final round, and was the first player in the clubhouse to post 3-under. Had Scott not birdied two of the last three holes, Bruns could have wound up in a multi-player playoff, and lamented he is “always ready to play more.”
By claiming first place points among the Georgia PGA competitors in the Atlanta Open, Bruns has placed himself in position to compete for Player of the year honors, which is something he said he was “not thinking about” prior to his strong showing at Pinetree.
“I’m just trying to have fun,” he said. “I love playing in Georgia PGA events and seeing all the guys, and supporting the PGA.”
After two events in 2019, Bruns is fifth on the points list even though he was unable to play in the event at Chattahoochee GC. Sonny Skinner and Capital City Club assistant J.P. Griffin share the lead after tying for fourth at Chattahoochee and tying for third among the club pros (seventh overall) at Pinetree with scores of 143. Griffin shot 73-70 and Skinner had scores of 69-74, playing his first three holes of the second round in 4-over.
Ten players broke par in the opening round, but Hayes was the only one to repeat that feat the next day, while Elliott matched par of 72. Four players other than Shimoji who broke par the first day shot 76 or higher the second round. One of them was former Atlanta Open champion Craig Stevens, who has a long history of tournament success at Pinetree. Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, followed an opening 69 with a 77 that included three shots hit out of bounds that caused him two double bogeys and a triple bogey on the 18th.