The Yamaha Atlanta Open has had a wide variety of champions in recent years, but one category missing was college golfers.
The tournament title has also eluded some of the Georgia PGA’s most prominent names, and perhaps the most successful member on that distinguished list was in position to finally end his long quest.
Marietta CC Director of Golf Stephen Keppler, who has won the other three of the Georgia PGA’s four major events a total of eight times, was on the verge of his first Atlanta Open victory when one of the state’s sizeable stable of promising young college golfers intervened.
McDonough’s Cory Griffin, who plays on the golf team at Armstrong Atlantic in Savannah, birdied the 17th hole of the rain-shortened 18-hole tournament to force a playoff with Keppler, who bogeyed the first extra hole to quickly dash his hopes of achieving the Georgia PGA Grand Slam.
Keppler, who had one of earlier morning tee times, shot a 4-under 68 at Polo G&CC and waited for hours to see if his score would hold up.
For most of the afternoon, it appeared it would. Several players came close but no one could match Keppler’s score until Griffin emerged late in the day as the last challenger to Keppler’s lead.
Griffin reached the dangerous par-5 17th in two and made birdie to get to 4-under, then scrambled for par at the 18th after coming up well short of the green following a tee shot into a fairway bunker. A superb pitch shot left him just a tap-in for par, and Griffin followed with a solid par on Polo’s difficult ninth hole to win when Keppler missed the green with his approach, came up short with his pitch shot and missed his par attempt.
Griffin enjoyed some success several years ago on the Georgia PGA Junior Tour, winning consecutive events during his senior year in high school. He was one of Armstrong’s top players as a sophomore, placing 3rd in the Peach Belt Conference Tournament, and was coming off a strong effort in a Georgia Amateur qualifier, sharing medalist honors at Orchard Hills
But Griffin was largely unknown to most of the Georgia PGA contingent in the field, just as his playoff opponent was unfamiliar to him.
Keppler, one of the state’s highest profile club professionals for the past 20-plus years, will be inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame early next year. But until they were introduced on the ninth tee for the playoff, Griffin had never met Keppler and was unaware of his long list of accomplishments in Georgia golf.
When Griffin learned a little about the player he defeated in the playoff, he smiled and said it was probably a good thing that he didn’t know who he was matched against. But he showed no sign of nerves either on the closing holes of his round or in the playoff.
A clutch save at the tough par-4 16th kept him at 3-under, and after playing conservatively on the first three par 5s, all shorter than the 17th, he elected to go for the green in two and the birdie pulled him even with Keppler.
When Griffin teed off, his main focus was to finish as low amateur. Two amateurs in the morning wave shot 69, and that was Griffin’s target. When he birdied the 17th, he thought that was for the lead, but as it turned out, he needed his up-and-down par at the 18th to match Keppler for the day’s low score.
“This means the world to me,” Griffin said of his victory, “to have my name on the same trophy as Bobby Jones and Dave Womack.”
Jones won the Atlanta Open in 1928, with Womack, a former USGA Mid-Amateur champion and a member at the same club as Griffin (Georgia National), the most recent amateur to win the Atlanta Open.
Womack’s victory came in 2010, and continued the recent pattern of amateurs winning every three years. Bob Royak, at the time one of the state’s top mid-amateurs, won in 2007, with Womack winning the event on his home course three years later.
College golfers won the Atlanta Open three times between 1987 and ’96, with all three (Jon Hough, Kevin Blanton and Matt Russell) winning the event again as professionals. But Russell’s win in ’96 was the last for a college player until Griffin’s recent triumph.
With the tournament reduced to 19 holes, Griffin said he “wanted to make as many birdies as possible and don’t make any big numbers. There were three or four birdies I should have converted, but other than the shot at 16, I played well.”
The key stretch for Griffin came in the middle of his round, as he scored birdies on three of the more vulnerable holes at Polo G&CC (7, 8 and 10) around a bogey at the ninth, when he said he “breathed” on a lightning fast putt down the slope from the fringe and watched it trickle 10 feet past the cup.
In the playoff, Griffin wisely kept his approach shot below the hole, and lagged his birdie try close enough for an easy par, while Keppler left himself a longer par attempt than he would have preferred.
Keppler capitalized on a “Mulligan” of sorts, as he was one of the players in the morning wave who had his partial score from the first schedule round washed away by heavy rain that rendered the course unplayable for the rest of the day.
When play was halted, Keppler was 4-over par, with 2011 Georgia Open champion Craig Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone CC, leading at 5-under. But with no chance to complete 36 holes, all partial scores from the scheduled first day were erased, with the tournament reduced to 18 holes.
Early morning rain delayed the start of play the next day, but the sun soon came out, and the field was able to complete 18 holes uninterrupted.
Keppler was 4-under after 13 holes before taking his lone bogey of the day at the par-5 17th. He followed with a birdie at 18 for his 68. It was the second time Keppler placed 2nd in the Atlanta Open to an amateur, the first coming 20 years ago. It was his third straight top 5 finish in the tournament, all coming since he turned 50.
As the low club professional, Keppler took home first place money of $3,600 and was also awarded first place points in the Georgia PGA Player of the Year standings.
Tying for 3rd at 69 were Hank Smith, an assistant at Frederica GC on St. Simons Island, Georgia State golfer Damon Stephenson and Georgia State signee Nathan Mallonee of Lexington. After starting his round with a double bogey on the 10th hole, Mallonee birdied his next three holes and got to 3-under after 11, but parred his last seven holes.
Four players tied for 6th at 70, including Polo G&CC Director of Instruction Steven Mitchell and Sea Island GC head pro Will Hutter, who carded six birdies. Also shooting 70 were college golfers Will McFarlin (Roswell) of North Georgia and Jack Walsh (Lawrenceville) of Western Carolina.
Walsh bogeyed the opening hole, but birdied three of the next four and was the only player to get to 5-under when he notched his sixth birdie of the day on the 12th. But Walsh bogeyed 15 and double bogeyed 16 to lose his lead.
Among nine players tying for 10th at 71 were Stevens; CC of the South Director of Instruction Shawn Koch, the 2006 Atlanta Open champion; Currahee Director of Golf Clark Spratlin, who won a recent Georgia PGA event at Chicopee Woods; and Fox Creek head pro Brian Dixon.
Koch was 4-under after 5 holes, highlighted by an eagle at the 13th, but did not make another birdie. Dixon was 3-under after 8 before bogeys on the final hole of each nine. Stevens again had five birdies, but also took four bogeys.
Defending champion Seth McCain of Jennings Mill was 4-under after an eagle at 13, but settled for a 72 after consecutive double bogeys at 16 and 17. Jason Bruce, a GolfTec instructor, was 3-under before a double bogey at 12 and also shot 72, as did Sonny Skinner, who was 4-under on his final nine before a bogey at the 9th.