The Yamaha Georgia Senior Open has produced some memorable finishes in recent years, each of them featuring the state’s most prominent players over the age of 50.
Three of the last four tournaments have been won by a final hole birdie, with James Mason winning at the UGA course last year by going eagle-birdie on his final two holes to get into a playoff before winning with another birdie on the first extra hole.
The Yamaha Georgia Senior Open returns to Gainesville after two years in Athens, with Chattahoochee Golf Club again serving as the tournament host, as it did in 2013. Craig Stevens won that year with a closing birdie to avoid a playoff with Danny Elkins, who shot a final round 62, a tournament record.
This year’s tournament will be played April 25-26 at one of the state’s best daily fee courses. Designed in 1960 by legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr., Chattahoochee GC has hosted the Georgia PGA Match Play Championship, Atlanta Open and Georgia Senior Open, all since 2011, and has produced exciting finishes each of the last two times it has been the site of a stroke play event.
The 2012 Atlanta Open was decided in a three-way playoff, with Mason losing in extra holes. Mason, Stephen Keppler and Stevens were among 11 players finishing within two shots of the leaders that year, with Keppler one shot back in fourth and Stevens two back in seventh.
Keppler was third and Mason fourth when Chattahoochee hosted the Georgia Senior Open in 2013, with Keppler losing in the three-way playoff at UGA last year and Stevens one shot back in fourth.
Mason, Stevens and Keppler are part of an outstanding group of seniors in the Georgia PGA Section, along with 2012 Georgia Senior Open champion Sonny Skinner. All four have made an impact at the national level in PGA events, and have been the dominant players among Georgia’s senior pros since Stevens, Skinner and Keppler all turned 50 in 2011.
Stevens won the Georgia Senior Open three of the first four years he was eligible, and has finished just one shot behind the winner the other two times he has competed in the event. Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone G&CC, ran away from the field in 2011 at Newnan Country Club, winning by eight shots, with Skinner tying for second and Keppler one shot farther back in a tie for fifth.
Skinner, Stevens and Keppler engaged in a spirited three-way battle the next year at Newnan CC, with Skinner scoring a birdie at the par-5 18th to win by a shot over Stevens, with Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, two back in third. Skinner, a long-time tour pro who was recently named head pro at Spring Hill CC in Tifton, has placed in the top 10 the last three years, but has not finished higher than sixth.
Mason, who won the Georgia Senior Open in his first appearance in the event in 2001 at the Orchard, played the tournament just once over the next decade while he was a member of the Champions Tour, returning in 2013 at Chattahoochee. He has placed fourth, second and first in the event the last three years, and remains very competitive in Georgia PGA Section events at the age of 65, winning the Georgia PGA Championship for the fourth time last year, his first win in the event since 2000.
Stevens’ third victory in the Georgia Senior Open came in 2014 at the UGA course, when he pulled away from Mason and amateurs Bob Royak and Rusty Strawn to win by three.
Amateurs won the tournament in 2007 and 2008, but those are the only two victories by non-professionals since three straight amateur triumphs in the mid-1990s. Ed Everett of Albany’s Doublegate CC won five times in an 8-year span from 1997-2004 with golf range operator Wendell Coffee scoring victories in 1998 and 2005 before amateurs Rocky Costa and David Nell won back-to-back at Planterra Ridge in 2007 and ’08.
Veteran mini-tour player Javier Sanchez captured consecutive titles in 2009 and ’10 at Callaway Gardens, before Stevens, Skinner and Keppler turned 50 in 2011 and Mason returned to the tournament field in 2013.
Mason, who plays out of the Orchard in Clarkesville, seemingly shot himself out of the tournament last year at the UGA course when he hit his tee shot on the short, par-3 16th into the pond fronting the green. But he chipped in for eagle at the par-5 17th and hit his second shot close on the tough par-4 finishing hole for a birdie to get into a playoff with Keppler and Mark Anderson, an instructor at Brunswick CC.
Keppler and Anderson held the outright lead briefly on the back nine, but bogeys dropped both into a share of the top spot. Stevens had a chance to make it a 4-way playoff, but bogeyed the 18th after gaining a tie with a birdie at 17.
The playoff started at the 18th and quickly ended when Mason hit another superb approach shot to easy birdie range for the victory.
Mason, Skinner, Stevens, Keppler, Anderson and Elkins are all in the field this year, along with fellow Georgia PGA members Clark Spratlin, Tommy Brannnen, Russ Davis, Charlie King and Chahattahoochee head pro Rodger Hogan.
Royak and Strawn are among the amateurs participating, with Jeff Belk, Bill Leonard, Don Marsh, Mel Mendenhall, Billy Mitchell and Doug Stiles also competing.
New to the tournament this year is a Super Senior Division for golfers 65 and over. Those players will compete for a separate purse and play from shorter tees (6,100 yards vs. 6,700).