Veteran tour player Paul Claxton collected his fifth win in a Georgia PGA event over the past year, capturing the Georgia PGA Championship earlier this week at Sea Island Golf Club’s Retreat course.
The tournament was scheduled for 54 holes, but was reduced to 36 holes when the second round was washed out. The final round was played Wednesday, with the field playing in foursomes with a morning shotgun start.
Claxton was tied for third after opening with a 1-under 71. Gary Miller, the head pro at Jennings Mill outside Athens, was the first round leader at 68, with two-time tournament champion Sonny Skinner, who has also spent much of his life in golf as a tour pro, two shots back at 70.
There were six players tied for third at 71, with Claxton and Cherokee Town & Country Club head pro Peter Jones, who tied fo second last year, the most prominent members of that group.
All eight players who began the final round under par teed off on the first hole, with Claxton and Jones going off in the first foursome along with Ryan Williams of the CC of Columbus and Chris Leake of the Landings Club in Savannah.
Miller and Skinner were in the second group off the first tee, with Todd Ormsby of Highland CC in LaGrange and Sea Island GC’s Benjamin Starke also in the group.
With pars on his first six holes the final day, Miller held a 2-shot lead over Skinner, who started with five straight pars before a birdie at the short but dangerous par-4 sixth. That pulled Skinner within a shot of Miller, and he briefly took the lead when he birdied the par-3 seventh while Miller bogeyed.
Miller rebounded with a birdie at the par-5 eighth to tie Skinner, with Claxton closing within a shot with a birdie at the eighth. It was the second birdie for Claxton on a par 5, as he opened his round with a birdie on the par-5 first hole. Bogeys at 9 and 10 knocked Miller out of the battle for the lead and he wound up tied for third at 142 after a birdie at the 18th.
Claxton reached the fringe of the par-5 10th and two-putted for birdie to tie Skinner, who immediately regained the outright lead when he also birdied the 10th.
The back nine was primarily a two-man duel between Claxton and Skinner, but a third player made a move to challenge the leaders.
Josh Williams, the head pro at Lost Plantation in the Savannah suburb of Rincon, shot 73 the first day and began the final round off the fourth tee. Williams birdied 4. 5 and 8 to move into contention and briefly tied for the lead with back-to-back birdies at 10 and 11, getting him to 5-under for the day after eight holes. But Williams played the two back nine par 3s at Retreat in 3-over, taking a bogey at the 12th and a double bogey at the 16th to end his hopes at a come-from-behind victory.
Williams joined Miller as part of a six-way tie for third, shooting 69 on the day to finish at 2-under 142.
That left Skinner and Claxton as the final two contenders, and Skinner maintained his one-stroke advantage until Claxton notched birdies at the long par-4 14th and short but perilous par-3 16th to take his first lead of the day.
Claxton, not known as a long hitter, hit the green in two at the par-5 17th, which did not play its full length for the tournament, and two-putted for what proved to be the clinching birdie, as Skinner also birdied the hole right behind him.
With six birdies, four of them on par 5s, and no bogeys, Claxton shot a final round 66, the low score of the tournament, for a 7-under 137 total. Skinner closed with a bogey-free round of 68 and was second at 138.
Four players tied Miller and Williams for third at 142. Jones shot 71-71, while David Potts of CC of the South, Matthew Sanders of Oak Mountain in Carrollton and Corey Ford of Augusta CC all matched Williams’ final round of 69.
Claxton earned $5,300 for his victory, with Skinner taking home $3,400. The six players tying for third received $2,000 each.
“I played real solid all day,” Claxton said of his 66. “I hit every fairway and every green, but I did not make a putt until 14. I stayed patient and made a couple of nice putts at 14 and 16 and that gave me the momentum I needed.”
Playing in the group in front of Skinner, Claxton said he “did not know where I stood. I seem to play my best when I’m not worrying about what others are doing.”
From 1995 to 2014, Claxton played 16 seasons on what is now the Web.com Tour and four years on the PGA Tour. He was the first player to reach $1 million in career earnings on the Web.com Tour, and still ranks third on the all-time money list.
Claxton collected two wins during his 16 Web.com seasons and was a consistent money winner his entire career before dropping out of the top 100 for the first time in 2014 at the age of 46.
After leaving his life as a tour pro, Claxton became the Director of Golf at Hawk’s Point GC in his home town of Vidalia. The club was in financial distress when Claxton took the job, and he did everything he could to save it.
“I did the job of three different people,” Claxton said. “I was the superintendent, the club manager and the head pro. That’s a lot for one person.”
Toward the end of the club’s existence, Claxton also served as its main fund raiser, as he did what he could to raise awareness about the club and to increase its membership. But his efforts proved to be insufficient for ownership, and Hawk’s Point went out of business, enabling Claxton to put more time into his own game.
With his 50th birthday approaching, Claxton started preparing himself for a shot at the Champions Tour, and began playing in Georgia PGA Section events in 2016. He tied for fourth on the points list that year with several strong showings, including a tie for third in the GPGA qualifier for the national club professional championship.
That qualified him for the 2017 nationals, and Claxton nearly won the event in his first try, leading during the final round before finishing in a tie for third. That earned Claxton a spot in the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, the first time he qualified for that event despite 20 years s a tour pro.
The week prior to the 2017 PGA, Claxton scored his first victory in a Georgia PGA tournament, capturing the Georgia Open at Ford Plantation outside Savannah. Claxton also won the Georgia PGA qualifier for the national club pro later last year, and has had three victories in 2018, including the Georgia PGA Senior Championship in his first year of eligibility.
Claxton, who turned 50 earlier this year, placed third in the 2018 Georgia Senior Open behind a pair of amateurs, and won a first-year Georgia PGA event at Chattahoochee GC in Gainesville.
Thanks to his two wins in Section events this year, Claxton has taken the lead in the Georgia PGA Player of the Year standings. But Skinner and Jones, who stand second and third, are both in the semifinals of the Match Play Championship and could overtake him with only one tournament remaining – the national club pro qualifier.
In addition to playing in Georgia PGA events this year and teaching on a part-time basis at Brunswick CC, Claxton has competed in a number of qualifiers for Champions Tour events. He has made it into three tournaments, including the Senior PGA Championship, earning a spot in the field based on his earnings from his two earlier Champions Tour starts.
Claxton finished in the middle of the pack in two tour events in March, and made the cut in the Senior PGA thanks to a second round 66. He will have a few more opportunities this year to play his way into a Champions Tour event, but his focus is on the qualifying process for the 2019 season, with regionals and finals scheduled for November.
There are only five spots for the 2019 Champions Tour available from the finals of qualifying, and there is a possibility that this will be the last year players like Claxton can earn a berth on the tour via the qualifying process.
“The hardest part is getting there. This is the hardest tour to get on,” Claxton observed. “I’ll continue to chase it, but this may be the last Q-school.”
Augusta’s Scott Parel, a long-time Web.com Tour player like Claxton, was the medalist at Champions Tour Q-school in 2016, and after a successful first full season last year, won a tour event last week and is among the top 10 on the current money list.
“That’s definitely motivating,” says Claxton, who noted that he “played with a lot of those guys” during his four years on the PGA Tour and 16 on the Web.com.
Although the Champions Tour is making it increasingly more difficult for players without status on the tour to play their way onto it, Claxton is not deterred.
“I’ve always loved to play and I still enjoy it. I love working on it, too.”
Claxton, who is living in the small town of Claxton in southeast Georgia (it’s where his wife’s family lives), played his college golf at Georgia, closing out his amateur career by winning the 1993 GSGA Championship at Athens CC. With his win last year in the Georgia Open, he joined an exclusive club of winners of both the Georgia Amateur and Georgia Open, with Savannah’s Tim O’Neal also joining the club when he won the recent Georgia Open.
This was Claxton’s second appearance in the Section Championship. He placed fourth in 2016 and did not play in the event last year.
Of the players who have enjoyed considerable success previously in the Section Championship, Skinner was the only one to contend this year.
Four-time champion Stephen Keppler of Marietta CC tied for ninth at 143 with J.P. Griffin of Capital City Club. Three-time winner Tim Weinhart of Heritage Golf Links, the 2016 and ’17 Section champion, tied for 11th at 144 with fellow three-time champ Craig Stevens of Woodmont. James Mason of the Orchard, like Keppler a four-time winner, tied for 18th at 145.