Atlanta Open preview – 2013, page 10
Keppler, Skinner, Spratlin look for first win in event
By Mike Blum
As the only 36-hole event among the Georgia PGA’s major championships, the Yamaha Atlanta Open has long been the most unpredictable of the four events, with an annually revolving list of host courses adding to the unpredictability.
The tournament has had 16 different winners over the last 16 years, and several of the Georgia PGA Section’s top players have been unable to add an Atlanta Open title to their resumes.
Over the last 30 years, only three players have won the tournament twice, with all three winning for the first time as amateurs. Of the three, only Jon Hough is a Georgia PGA member, with Hough winning back-to-back in 1987 and ’88.
Hough, Kevin Blanton (1994, 2001) and Matt Russell (1996, 1997) won for the first time as college golfers and the second as mini-tour players, with Blanton and Russell since regaining their amateur status and Hough joining the PGA after enjoying a successful run on the Nike (now Web.com) Tour.
A number of the most prominent Georgia PGA members have won the Atlanta Open during that 16-year span, including Craig Stevens (2011), Tim Weinhart (2009), Matt Peterson (2008), Shawn Koch (2006), Chan Reeves (2005), Greg Lee (2003), Phil Taylor (2002) and James Mason (2000).
But among the top Georgia PGA members still looking for their first victory in the tournament are Stephen Keppler, Sonny Skinner, Clark Spratlin, David Potts and Bill Murchison.
Seth McCain, an assistant at Jennings Mill, won last year’s Atlanta Open at Chattahoochee GC, taking a playoff over Mason, a veteran member of the Champions Tour, and Danny Nungesser, a newcomer to the Georgia PGA Section.
The 2013 Yamaha Atlanta Open will be played June 10-11 at Polo G&CC in Cumming, the first time the club has hosted the event and the first time since 1999 it has been the site of a top Georgia PGA tournament.
The Polo Classic was among the top Georgia PGA events from 1995-99, and most of the Section’s veteran members either won or contended during the five years Polo G&CC hosted it.
Although the Atlanta Open has had a succession of different winners – including amateurs Dave Womack (2010) and Bob Royak (2007) – a lot of the same names have frequently been among the tournament contenders.
McCain, who has battled a back injury in recent years, tied for 4th in the Atlanta Open in both 2007 and ’10, with his playoff win last year his first in the Section since taking back-to-back tournaments at Griffin CC and Chicopee Woods in ’09.
Last year’s tournament was one of the most closely contested in Atlanta Open history, with three players finishing just one shot out of the playoff and five others two back. McCain won the playoff with a pair of pars on Chattahoochee’s 18th hole, with Mason taking bogey on the first playoff hole and Nungesser on the second. It was Mason’s first appearance in the tournament in over a decade, with Nungesser making his first ever start in a Section points event.
Keppler, Potts and Jeff Hull tied for 4th, one shot behind the playoff trio who finished with 6-under 138 totals. Former champions Stevens and Royak tied for 7th at 140 along with host pro Rodger Hogan, Gary Miller and amateur Chris Waters.
During his long and successful career in the Georgia PGA, Keppler has won the Georgia Open and Match Play Championship twice each and the Section Championship four times, but has come up short in the Atlanta Open despite several opportunities to win.
Last year was the closest he’s come since the mid-1990s, when he placed 2nd in 1994 and 4th in ’96. He had a string of finishes between 5th and 11th from 1998-2011 before his near miss at Chattahoochee.
Potts has come close twice in recent years, taking 3rd in 2009 behind Weinhart, who made repeated challenges for victory in the event before finally breaking through at Canongate’s Heron Bay course.
Weinhart lost playoffs to Mason in 2000 and Taylor in ’02, and came close a few other times before scoring a rare decisive win in the tournament. He won by three strokes with an 8-under 136 total, the largest margin of victory since 1998. Weinhart nearly defended his title the next year, losing by a stroke to Womack, a former USGA Mid-Amateur champion who was playing on his home course at Georgia National.
Also tying for 2nd that year was Hull, who had two other runner-up showings in the tournament along with several other top finishes, but has since moved out of the Section.
Weinhart missed last year’s event after qualifying for the U.S. Open, which begins two days after the Atlanta Open ends.
Like Weinhart, Stevens had a number of close calls in the tournament before winning at The Frog in 2011 with a 13-under 131 total. Stevens had four top-5 finishes between 1995 and 2004, but did not seriously contend again in the tournament until his outstanding performance two years ago.
Skinner was 4th, 4th and 2nd in the Atlanta Open between 2006 and ’08, finishing just one shot behind Peterson in ’08, but hasn’t cracked the top 10 since. Peterson, an infrequent tournament competitor the past few years, also has been out of the top 10 in the tournament since his victory at Newnan CC.
Winston Trively has a pair of runner-up finishes in the Atlanta Open, losing a playoff to Reeves at Golf Club of Georgia in ’05 and ending up one behind Stevens two years ago after shooting 10-under for 36 holes. Spratlin was 3rd that year at 135, his best career showing in the tournament.
The scores were relatively low during the five years the Polo Classic was played in the 1990s, with the absence of serious length offering plenty of birdie chances. Polo G&CC measures just 6,700 yards, with three of the par 5s in the 510-525 range and only a handful of par 4s over 400.
While it is on the short side by modern standards, the excellent Joe Lee design is not defenseless, with predominantly narrow fairways and plenty of trouble, although many of the hazards are more a factor for member play rather than for the state’s top club professionals and amateurs.
Among the most vulnerable holes are the quartet of par 5s, which average barely over 520 yards and are all reachable in two. Accuracy off the tee is key on several of them, with the tree-lined downhill eighth particularly narrow and trouble in play off the tee on both the 13th and 17th, the latter the longest of the four at 540.
The par 3s are also on the short side, with the exception of the 15th, which measures 213 yards from the tips with a typically well-bunkered green that is a staple of Lee’s many designs found in Georgia and Florida. Water is in play on the 179-yard fifth and downhill 172-yard 12th, but the hazards are far enough removed from most pin positions to require a significantly off-target iron shot to find them.
Lee offers up a reasonably inviting group of holes early in the round (with one exception) before setting up an interesting variety of finishing holes that include some of the strongest on the course.
A pair of par 4s measuring 370 and 360 allow short iron approaches on the first two holes, but are followed by one of just two par 4s longer than 425. The third features a well-protected green with a decent amount of slope, and Polo’s quality putting surfaces will provide some chances to hole putts, although three-putts from long range will not be uncommon.
The configuration of a number of the greens can make for some challenging bunker shots depending on pin positions, with a proficient short game and solid iron play a more valuable asset on Lee’s thoughtful design than length off the tee.
The opening nine concludes with a long and potentially hazardous par 4, which includes perhaps the most treacherous green on the course and one of the toughest approach shots as well.
Like the front nine, the back begins with a pair of short and inviting par 4s, but with a greater demand for precision from the tee to set up wedge approaches that can produce birdies.
Polo’s challenging finish begins at the similarly short par-4 14th, which requires accuracy on both the tee shot and approach, with a large, well-protected green making bogeys more likely than birdies.
Water is very much in play on the par-4 16th, with the second shot over the hazard to a green set up at an angle from the fairway one of the most difficult the players will encounter.
It doesn’t take much a miss to find trouble on the sharply dogleg right 17th either off the tee or for those going for the green in two, but those who drive it long and straight will be rewarded.
Polo closes with a par 4 similar to but shorter than the ninth, with less trouble around a tamer putting surface that could produce a winning birdie putt.