For much of March and April, Billy Mitchell’s thoughts were far from the golf course, where he has been one of Georgia’s top amateur players for more than a decade.
Mitchell’s 23-year-old daughter Sarah was severely injured in a scooter accident while on vacation in Mexico and spent two weeks in the ICU and CCU recovering from extensive injuries. After some touch and go moments, Sarah is out of the hospital and is “projected to make a full recovery,” according to her very relieved father.
Sarah still has a long way to go to fully regain her health, but her father felt comfortable enough to return to competition in late April, playing in consecutive tournaments in Thomasville and Gainesville.
Mitchell and playing partner Chris Waters teamed up to finish second in the GSGA Four-Ball Championship at Glen Arven, falling out of a tie for first when the winning team eagled the final hole.
The next day, Mitchell was playing without a partner in the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open at Chattahoochee GC, and put himself in position for victory after opening with a 3-under 69.
Mitchell followed with a 68 and wound up in a playoff with former PGA Tour caddie John L. Smith, the brother of Frederica Club head pro Hank Smith. Mitchell parred the 18th to win on the first extra hole when Smith encountered an awkward yardage for his second shot in the playoff. He made bogey after coming up short with his approach.
After playing professionally all over the world during the 1980s and ‘90s, Mitchell regained his amateur status and settled in the Atlanta area in the mid-‘90s. He has lived in east Cobb County since 2001 and has been a long time fixture in Georgia amateur circles, winning the GSGA Public Links Championship in 2010 and ’11, and quailfying16 times for various USGA events.
Mitchell, whose father is a career club pro in the Daytona Beach area, says he has “nothing but respect for PGA professionals,” and said his victory was particularly sweet coming against Georgia’s standout group of senior club pros.
“Wins are all special,” said Mitchell, with his playoff victory at Chattahoochee especially sweet because of all he experienced in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
“Your perspective on life changes. I’ve always loved this game, but this helps put golf back in place.”
Over the years, Mitchell has had a number of close calls in statewide tournaments.
“I’ve knocked on the door a lot, but I haven’t closed the deal.”
That could have happened again in the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open, as Mitchell built a 3-stroke lead early on the back nine of the final round after beginning his day with four birdies on his first six holes.
A double bogey on the par-5 13th hole cost Mitchell the outright lead, but he followed at the next hole with a birdie and found himself in a playoff after pars on his last four holes. Mitchell was in between clubs for his second on the 13th and said he “tried to back off a 3-wood. I pulled it and hit the cart path.”
The ball bounced into thick trees left of the green and was sitting up in leaves. Mitchell hit “right under the ball” and barely advanced, getting back to the fairway with his fourth shot before chipping onto the green and two-putting.
“I bounced back with a birdie after the seven,” Mitchell said, quickly regaining the top spot over Smith, who pulled even with his birdie at the par-5 15th.
Mitchell and Smith both finished at 7-under 137, with Mitchell shooting 68 the final round with six birdies and the one slip on the 13th. Smith, part of a three-way tie for the lead after an opening 68, closed with a 69 highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 eighth. His only bogey of the day came on the opening hole, with his two birdies coming on Chattahoochee’s back nine par 5s.
Craig Stevens, who won the Georgia Senior Open three times between 2011 and ’14 and was runner-up in 2012, finished one shot out of a playoff for the second straight year, the third time he’s come up one shot short in the last five years. Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone G&CC, was third at 138 after a pair of 69s.
Stevens carded three birdies on the back nine and had an excellent chance for a fourth after a beautiful tee shot on the downhill par-3 17th, but missed from five feet and came up just short on his birdie try on the 18th.
Smith, a Statesboro resident, took home $2,200 for finishing as low pro in his first appearance in the Georgia Senior Open. He shared the first round lead at 68 with Marietta CC Director of Golf Stephen Keppler and Atlanta pro Shouting Huang.
Without a great deal of tournament options for players 50 and over, Smith is primarily playing in pre-qualifiers and Monday qualifiers on the Champions Tour. He has made it through most of the pre-qualifiers, but has yet to play his way into a tour event.
Prior to turning 50, Smith caddied for Swainsboro’s Will Claxton on the PGA Tour for two-plus years, but Claxton has not played since undergoing hip surgery two years ago. Since Claxton’s injury, Smith has played more than he’s caddied, and placed 20th in the 2014 Georgia Open and tied for sixth last year at Pinetree.
Smith said he was “definitely encouraged” by his Georgia Senior Open showing. “I only had two bogeys the whole tournament.”
Unfortunately for Smith, he made a third bogey on the first playoff hole, the par-4 18th. After a beautiful drive, he had what he described as “an odd yardage into the green,” and caught his short second shot heavy, coming up well short. He was unable to get up and down for par, with Mitchell making a routine par for the victory.
“I saw one or two of those shots today,” Smith said of his final round playing partners. “And then it happened to me.”
Keppler, who has finished fifth, third, third, second in a playoff and fourth in his five Georgia Senior Open starts, earned a spot in the final pairing of the second round with an opening 68 highlighted by an eagle at the par-5 13th.
After 11 pars and a birdie on his first 12 holes in the final round, Keppler was one shot off Mitchell’s lead and was in position to move into a tie with a well-placed wedge shot on the 13th. But he chunked his approach and made bogey, keeping himself in contention with a birdie at the par-4 14th.
Keppler was just off the green on the par-5 15th in two with an excellent chance for a second straight birdie, but barely advanced his chip shot and suffered another costly bogey. Keppler birdied the 18th hole for a 71 and a tie for fourth at 5-under 139 with Johns Creek amateur Don Marsh, who shot a second round 69.
Huang fought back after a shaky start to shoot even par 72 and tie for sixth at 140. He struggled to find fairways early in the final round and bogeyed three of his first four holes, saving par on the par-3 third after topping his tee shot. He was 3-under over his final 14 holes, closing with birdies at 15, 16 and 18 around a bogey at the 17th.
An adventurous finish to his opening round left Huang with a share of the lead going to the final day of play. Huang had two birdies and no bogeys for his first 14 holes before going birdie-eagle-birdie on holes 6, 7 and 8. The two birdies came on Chattahoochee’s front nine par 5s, with his eagle the result of a hole-out on the difficult par-4 seventh.
But with a chance to claim the outright lead after 18 holes, Huang made double bogey on the ninth to finish tied with Smith and Keppler, who set the standard when he shot 68 as part of the first group off the first tee.
Sharing sixth place with Huang was Athens amateur Doug Stiles and Spring Hill head pro Sonny Skinner, the 2012 Georgia Senior Open champion. Stiles closed with a 67, making six of his seven birdies late on each of the nines. Skinner shot 69-71, scoring birdies on two of the first three holes the final day but managing just one more over the final 15 holes.
Tying for ninth at 141 was defending champion James Mason of Dillard and amateur Larry Vaughan of Greensboro. Mason shot 70 the second round with 16 pars and two birdies, while Vaughan had six birdies in a 68.
Currahee Club Director of Golf Clark Spratlin, Brunswick CC instructor Mark Anderson and Peachtree City amateur Jack Kearney tied for 11th at 142. Spratlin shot 72 the second day, playing his first 12 holes in 4-over before closing with birdies on four of the last six. Anderson began his first round with 13 straight pars before consecutive birdies at 14, 15 and 16 for a 69. He settled for a 73 the next day with just one birdie. Like Mason, Kearney had 16 pars and two birdies in a final round 70.