Ford Plantation proved to be an outstanding host in its first three years as the site for the Georgia Open, but one thing it was unable to do was produce a closely contested finish.
That changed in the fourth straight Georgia Open played at the Savannah area club, with the tournament decided in a three-way playoff with two others only one shot back in a tie for fourth.
Barrett Waters, a young mini-tour player from Villa Rica, rallied from a 6-stroke deficit after 54 holes with a final round 66 to get into the playoff, then won it on the first extra hole with a birdie on the long and difficult par-4 18th at the exceptional Pete Dye layout.
Waters, a former West Georgia golfer who plays primarily on the Open Golf Atlanta Tour, had contended in the Georgia Open in recent years, most notably in 2018 when he led by two going to the final round. Savannah’s Tim O’Neal, the only player closer than four shots to Waters’ lead, fired a 64 to win by five over Waters, who closed with a respectable 71.
O’Neal’s Sunday 64 last year was the low score of the day by three shots, and Waters matched that feat with his closing 66 this year. With none of the six players ahead of him after 54 holes able to shoot in the 60s in the final round, Waters was able to make up ground, scoring birdies on five of his last 10 holes to get into the playoff.
Canton’s Jared O’Kelley, who played his college golf at Cincinnati, held the 54-hole lead at 11-under 205, with former Kennesaw State golfer Kelby Burton of Evans second at 206 and former Web.com/PGA Tour player Paul Claxton third at 207. Recent South Carolina golf team member Ryan Stachler was fourth at 208, with Gus Wagoner, an assistant at Capital City Club, tied for fifth with O’Neal at 209.
O’Neal had compiled an impressive record in the Georgia Open over the four times the event was played in Savannah the past decade. He was second at Savannah Harbor in 2010, and placed third in 2016 at Ford Plantation and second in 2017 before scoring his come-from-behind victory last year.
After opening with scores of 68 and 67, O’Neal led Burton by two after 36 holes and seemed headed for a repeat title. But a pair of double bogeys led to a third round 74 and he lost the lead to O’Kelley, who carded six birdies and an eagle Saturday for a 67, matching the low round of the day and the tournament to that point.
Neither O’Kelley nor Burton could get anything going on the front nine Sunday, with both scoring their only birdies going out on the vulnerable par-5 ninth. O’Kelley still had the lead at the turn at 11-under, with Claxton one back after missing an excellent birdie opportunity at the ninth and Burton two back after bogeys at 7 and 8.
Stachler and Wagoner, playing in the threesome in front of the lead trio, also birdied the ninth to turn in 10-under while O’Neal needed a birdie at the ninth to play the front in even par to remain four off the lead. Waters was also 7-under at the turn after he birdied the ninth.
Stachler and Claxton pulled even with O’Kelly when they both birdied the par-5 11th while O’Kelley was unable to get up-and-down for birdie from a greenside bunker. Burton and Wagoner were both two back after birdies at the 11th, with Wagoner damaging his chances with a double bogey on the 10th.
O’Neal seemed poised to make a move when he birdied the 10th to get to 8-under, but he was unable to birdie the reachable par-5 11th and closed with three bogeys on his final four holes to drop into a tie for seventh at 283.
Birdies at 11 and the par-3 12th pulled Waters within two of the lead, and he added two more birdies at 15 and 16 to pull even with O’Kelley and Burton at 11-under.
O’Kelley began the back nine with seven straight pars while Burton carded three birdies in a 5-hole stretch, reaching the 11th in two, chipping in at the par-3 12th and holing a nice putt at the 15th.
Stachler lost his share of the lead with a bogey at the 13th and parred in from there to finish one shot out of the playoff in a tie for fourth.
Claxton, who won the Georgia Open at Ford Plantation in 2017, bogeyed the 15th to fall one back, and again missed a birdie attempt from close range at the par-5 16th to prevent him from regaining a share. He made a nice par save from the sand at 17 to keep his chances alive, but could no better than par at the difficult 18th, which played even tougher late in Sunday’s final round as weather conditions began to change while the leaders played the hole.
After seven consecutive pars, O’Kelley rolled in a birdie putt at the demanding par-3 17th to take a 1-shot lead to the final hole. An excellent lag putt from the front of the green to a back pin gave him a putt of about three feet for the win, but his par attempt lipped out, sending O’Kelley to a playoff with Burton and Waters.
After both Burton and O’Kelley missed the green at the 18th to start the playoff, Waters stuck his second within about 12 feet. By the time he putted for birdie, both Burton and O’Kelley had missed their par attempts and Waters rolled in his birdie try when two putts would have been good enough to win.
The victory erased any unpleasant memories Waters had from his loss last year after beginning the final round with a lead.
“This means a lot,” he said after his victory. “I had a two-shot lead heading to the final round last year and Mr. O’Neal shot a 64.”
Waters said playing from behind this year was easier for him than trying to protect the lead in 2018.
“It forced me to play aggressively, and that helped me today. I played more tentatively last year, worrying about not making bogeys.
“I had a 65 in mind today and shot 66. I was definitely not unhappy with the round. At least it gave me a chance.”
Waters had his grandfather with him for the tournament as his caddy, and said having him along for the week made his victory even more special.
This was the fifth straight year Waters has finished sixth or better in the Georgia Open, beginning with a tie for sixth at Pinetree in 2015 while he was still a member of the golf team at West Georgia.
He was within range of the lead after 54 holes in 2016, but closed with a 75 to tie for fourth, 10 behind the winner. Waters closed with a 66 the next year to move up to a tie for fifth, five behind Claxton, and was overtaken by O’Neal in the final round last year.
Considering his string of previous top finishes in the tournament, Waters said “at some point I figured I had to win,” but realized he was not in the best position heading to the final round after not playing his best the first three days.
Waters opened with a 71 that included five birdies and a triple bogey on the par-3 17th, his eighth hole of the day. He was five back of O’Neal’s lead after a second round 71 that included six birdies, three bogeys and six straight pars to close out his round. Needing a strong third round to move closer to the lead, he settled for a 71 to drop six off the lead.
Like O’Kelley, Waters could have won the tournament outright at the 18th, but missed an excellent birdie opportunity after an excellent approach. He also missed a short birdie putt at the 14th, but offset that with a nice par save at the 17th.
Waters has been the top player on the Open Golf Atlanta Tour this year, winning five one-day tournaments. By playing that tour, “I’ve learned how to score. When you don’t have more than one round, it forces you to play aggressively, and that helped me today.”
With his victory, Waters took home the winner’s check of $8,000, which will more than cover the entry cost for his second visit to Q-school this Fall as he attempts to play his way onto what was formerly known as the Web.com Tour.
O’Kelley and Burton both took home $5,000 for their runner-up finishes, with Stachler and Claxton earning $3,400 for their ties for fourth. Wagoner was sixth with O’Neal, former Georgia Southern golfer Scott Wolfes of St. Simons and Zach Caldwell of Alpharetta tying for seventh at 283.
Former South Carolina golfer Dykes Harbin of Augusta was 11th alone at 284, with fellow Augustan Emmanuel Kountakis, who played on the Korn Ferry Tour this year, among a trio of players tying for 12th at 285. Harbin and Kountakis both shot 69 in the final round, the only players other than Waters to break 70 on the day.
Low amateur honors went to Georgia State golf team member Egil Gunnarsson, who tied for seventh overall at 283 to finish five shots ahead of his closest competitor. Gunnarsson, who came to Georgia State from Iceland, was one of two international Panthers to compete in the tournament. Australia’s Josh Edgar tied for fourth among the amateurs at 290.
The Georgia Open was sponsored by DripFusion powered by Pro IV and presented by Red Hare Brewing and E-Z-Go.