The Championship at Berkeley Hills will be played for the 10th time July 8-9, and the state’s club professionals will attempt to snap a 6-year string of victories by amateurs in the Georgia PGA tournament.
Among the amateur winners is Gus Wagoner, now an assistant pro at Capital City Club, who started the streak of amateur champions in the event while he was still in college in 2013. Wagoner will be in the field along with Georgia Southern golfer Jacob Bayer, who won in 2016 while he was still attending high school in Gwinnett County.
Bayer, a member at Berkeley Hills, tied for seventh in last year’s tournament with a score of 4-under 140, with Wagoner tying for 10th at 141.
Alpharetta’s Ryan Stachler, who recently completed his college career at South Carolina, won last year’s Championship at Berkeley Hills in a playoff over Georgia PGA member Brian Dixon of Fox Creek, but is playing a national amateur schedule this summer and may not be back to defend his title. Both players shot 7-under 137 to finish one ahead of a trio of golfers.
The lone mid-amateur to win the tournament – 2017 champion Erik Martin – will also compete in this year’s event.
Of the three club professionals who won the first three tournaments at Berkeley Hills between 2010 and ’12, the most prominent is 2012 champion Stephen Keppler, who was a regular participant in the event until last year.
Although no Georgia PGA member has won the tournament at Berkeley Hills since Keppler, several have come close, most notably 9-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year Tim Weinhart, the Director of instruction at Heritage Golf Links.
Weinhart tied for second behind Wagoner in 2013, was low pro in both 2015 and ’16, placing third and second respectively to end up two shots behind the amateur winners each time. Weinhart had top-4 finishes in both 2010 and ’11, the first two years Berkeley hosted the event.
Sonny Skinner has been a frequent contender at Berkeley Hills, placing second the first year the tournament was held in 2010, just one shot behind the winner, and tying for third last year, one out of the playoff. Also contending last year was former Champions Tour winner James Mason, who finished sixth at 139.
Paul Claxton, like Skinner and Mason a former Tour player, tied for fourth in both 2016 and ’17, but slipped out of the top 10 last year and has been sidelined from recent tournament action by a bad back. Claxton tied for 14th last year along with fellow Georgia PGA pros Craig Stevens, Peter Jones, Anthony Cordes and Jacob Tilton, all of whom are returning,
Cordes, an assistant at Cherokee Town & CC, was low pro and second overall in 2017, with Jones, the Director of Instruction at Cherokee, tying for fourth. Hank Smith, the Director of Golf at Frederica on St. Simons Island, also has a recent record of success in the tournament with two top 10s and a T11 over the last three years. Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, was second to Keppler in 2012.
Matt Elliott, an assistant at Achasta who won the 2019 Georgia PGA season opener at Chattahoochee GC, is also in the field along with CC of the South Director of Instruction Shawn Koch, who won the recent Toby Chapin Memorial Pro-Am at River Pines with a score of 63. Koch tied Weinhart for second at Berkeley Hills in 2013 behind Wagoner.
Coming into the Championship at Berkeley Hills, Skinner is tied for first on the Georgia PGA points list with Capital Coty Club assistant J.P. Griffin, who had consecutive finishes of eighth and fourth at Berkeley Hills in 2016 and ’17, but is unable to compete this year Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen, the 2017 Georgia PGA Player of the Year, tied for third at Berkeley Hills in 2013, and is among a consistent group of contenders in Section events looking to move up with a strong showing in the tournament.
Owen comes into the Championship at Berkeley Hills 18th in the points standings, with Koch 12th, Mason 15th and Dixon 21st after two tournaments. Weinhart is just behind the co-leaders in third, followed by Stevens, Augusta National assistant Robby Bruns and Jones.
Former champions Bayer and Martin are among the amateurs in the field who will look to continue their 6-year victory streak. With the Georgia Amateur beginning two days after the Championship at Berkeley Hills concludes, most of the state’s top amateurs are preparing for that event, but there are several players from the state’s Division 1 golf programs in the field along with Bayer, and about eight players who are scheduled to play in both events.
Alexander DeRosa, Bayer’s Georgia Southern teammate, is in the field along with Mercer’s Nolan Miller and Georgia State’s Josh Edgar, who is also playing in the Georgia Amateur. Joining Edgar in the field at Berkeley Hills is teammate Owen Sertl and incoming Georgia State freshman Will Chambless.
Edward Hollis, the 2018 GSGA Public Links, is also competing, as is 2017 GSGA Junior champion Brandon Cho, like Bayer a member at Berkeley Hills. Hollis and Sertl are playing in the Georgia Amateur later in the week.
Berkeley Hills is among the shorter courses to host statewide events, measuring just 6,700 yards from the tips. But it is a popular site for both Georgia PGA and GSGA events, with its quick greens serving as its primary defense.
With several reachable par 5s, a number of short-ish par 4s and no par 3s longer than 195 yards, Berkeley Hills offers plenty of scoring opportunities. But there are enough holes where accuracy off the tee is critical, as well as one of the most dangerous risk/reward par 5s in tournament golf in the state.
Of Berkeley Hills’ par 5s, two are long and open, inviting bigger hitters to take two aggressive swings without much cause for concern. That is not the case for the other two, both of which measure a little short of 500 yards.
The third features water down the left side that extends all the way to the green and is in play off tee, on the dangerous second shot and for those who lay up. The wide, shallow green does not offer much of a target, especially from long range, with hazard stakes not far behind the green for those who take more club to clear the pond just short of the putting surface.
The dogleg left 10th is the tightest hole on the course, with a pair of bunkers protecting a two-tier green of modest size. Trees pinch the fairway on both sides and it takes considerable accuracy off the tee to set up an unobstructed second shot.
The most vulnerable of the par 3s is the 151-yard 11th, which can frustrate birdie opportunities with its multi-level green that funnels slightly off-target shots away from certain pin positions. It is one of two par 3s with water in play, but unlike the 188-yard third, the water is not in play for the tournament participants.
With six par 4s of 380 yards or shorter and two others just over 400, players will be hitting plenty of short iron approaches, but other than the open, downhill sixth, none are especially soft touches. The narrow fifth plays uphill from tee to green, and the side-by-side ninth and 18th holes both feature sharply uphill approaches to two of the tougher putting surfaces on the course.
The tournament has had several furious finishes by the eventual winner, with holes 15, 16 and 17 capable of yielding birdies in bunches to players who get on a hot streak late in the final round. With water right and trees left, the 17th is no easy mark, and players who find the fairway with their lay-up from an elevated tee still have to negotiate a split level green to set up a birdie opportunity.
The winning score in the tournament has ranged from a high of 6-under in 2014 to a low of 12-under the next year, when Davin White shot 132 to edge Nathan Mallonee by a shot in a battle of Georgia State teammates. Weinhart shot 134 and was the low pro in the event three times in a 4-year stretch from 2013-16.