Paul Claxton successfully defended his title in the Georgia PGA Championship, winning for the second straight year at Sea Island Golf Club’s Retreat course on Wednesday.
Claxton, who lived in the Retreat neighborhood for a number of years before moving to the small southeast Georgia community of Claxton, shot 9-under 207 to win by two strokes over two players who have won the Section Championship seven times between them.
Stephen Keppler andTim Weinharttied for second at 209, with Keppler making a run at the lead on the front nine in the final round and Weinhart mounting a late challenge.
Jacob Tilton, who led Claxton by three shots heading to the third round, was tied for the lead with four holes to play, bit back-to-back birdies by Claxton at holes 15 and 16 broke a three-way with Tilton and Keppler.
“It’s very satisfying to win a tournament at home.” Claxton said. “I lived down there a long time and that makes it a little more special.”
Claxton lived on St. Simons Island for much of the time he was competing on either the PGA Tour orNike Tour, as it was known when he played it for the first time in 1995. Claxton spent 20 years on the two tours – 16 on what is now the KF Tour – before stepping away from his career as a tour pro.
After returning to his home in Vidalia, Claxton served as the head pro at a struggling course in his home town, but his efforts to keep it in business were unsuccessful. Claxton has competed in Georgia PGA events in recent years, as well as playing an occasional event on the Champions Tour (he turned 50 early last year), and also teaches part time at Brunswick Country Club.
Since he began playing in Georgia PGA tournaments, Claxton won the Georgia Open and Section qualifier for the national club pro championship in 2017,the Section Championship and a first-year Georgia PGA event at Chattahoochee GC in 2018 and the East Chapter Championship and his second Georgia PGA Championship title this year. He also won the Georgia PGA’s qualifier for the senior club pro championship last year, and has come close to several other victories, including the recent Georgia Open.
Claxton collected his first victory in the Georgia PGA Championship last year at Retreat, winning a final round duel with fellow former tour pro Sonny Skinner. Claxton trailed by three shots after the opening round, but after the scheduled second day of play was washed out, fired a 66 the next day to win the rain-shortened tournament, edging Skinner by one shot thanks to three birdies on the final five holes.
The number of final round challengers increased from two to four this year, with all four players within a shot of the lead before Claxton pulled away with consecutive birdies at 15 and 16.
Claxton was playing in the final threesome with Tilton, with Weinhart in the group ahead of them and Keppler in the threesome in front of Weinhart.
Until he inquired how he stood late in the round, Claxton was unaware that Keppler shot 6-under 30 on the front nine to pull into a tie for the lead. Claxton went out in 2-under to move one shot in front of Tilton, but was tied with Keppler before making a birdie on the par-5 10th.
Tilton, an assistant at Ansley GC, also birdied the 10thand regained the lead temporarily with a birdie at the 11thwhile Claxton made his only bogey of the day. Tilton gave up the outright lead when he bogeyed the par-3 12th, and remained in a tie with Claxton and Keppler until Claxton birdied the par-4 15th.
Claxton followed with a birdie on the par-3 16thto move ahead by two, and that turned out to be his final margin. Claxton closed with a 68 to take home the furst place check of $5,000.
After carding six birdies on the front nine, Keppler settled for nine pars on the back for a 66 to tie for second, his seventh runner-up finish in the event to go along with four victories, the most recent in 2011. Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, and Weinhart both earned $3,100.
Weinhart spent most of the final round several shorts off the lead before birdies at 14, 15 and 16 pulled him within a shot of Claxton. But Claxton scored a matching birdie at the 16th, and Weinhart finished with a 68 and his fifth career runner-up finish in the Section Championship. Weinhart , the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, won the event back-to-back at Seaside in 2016 and Retreat in 2017.
Tilton was the only non-senior of the four main contenders, and was looking for his first victory in a Section points event. He took a 3-shot lead over Claxton after a second round 66 that was highlighted by an eagle on the short, par sixth and birdies on all four par 5s.
But after making six birdies and an eagle in the second round, the long-hitting Tilton managed just three birdies the next day, all in the middle of the round. He carded birdies on two par 5s (8 and 10), but needing a birdie on the par-5 17thto cut into Claxton’s lead, he made a bogey to drop to fourth place after a 2-over 74.
Tying for fifth at 212 was former Champions Tour player James Mason, a four-time Section Championship winner, and Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen. Skinner was seventh at 213 and CapitalCity Club assistant J.P. Griffin placed eighth at 214.
Claxton, known as a steady, precise player, said he “struck the ball well all week. I had a lot of chances.” His opening 67 included seven birdies, all between holes 5 and 16. Claxton led by two after the first round after Currahee Director of Golf Clark Spratlin, who also shot 67, was disqualified for a scoring error on his scorecard.
Instead of being tied for the lead, Claxton led four players by two shots, but he fell three behind Tilton after a second round 72 that included four bogeys, offsetting four birdies.
“The second day I did not putt as well,” said Claxton, who missed three putts in the five-feet-and-under range.
“I don’t know why that happens,” he said of the disparity in his success on the greens the first two days. “That’s the way golf is.”
Claxton did not need a great deal of help from his putter the final day. He said all five of his birdies were from close range. “No long putts.”
Playing on a course he is very familiar with “means a lot,” Claxton observed, “at least for me. “I’m comfortable on the greens and nothing catches me off guard there.”
With his victory, Claxton is exempt for the 2020 national club pro championship, but still plans to play in the Georgia PGA Professional Championship, the Section’s qualifier for nationals, in October. The tournament will be played at Jennings Mill, just outside Athens. Claxton played his college golf at Georgia and competed at Jennings Mill during the years the course hosted a Nationwide Tour event.
Claxton will also attempt another qualifier or two on the Champions Tour this season, with his eye on Q-school later this year. Claxton has made only one appearance in a Champions event this year, but had to withdraw with what he termed “back issues” during the second round of the PGA Senior Championship in May. He will also play in the senior club pro championship in October with a chance to qualify for the 2020 Senior PGA with a top finish.