Of the 60-plus players competing in the Georgia PGA Professional Championship earlier this week at Barnsley Resort, Paul Claxton was the lone player in the field not concerned about qualifying for next year’s national club professional championship.
Thanks to his victory in the Georgia PGA Championship at Sea Island GC in late August, Claxton had already earned a spot in the2019 PGA Professional Championship. Even with his spot at nationals secured, Claxton had plenty to play for in the final Georgia PGA points event of 2018.
Claxton came into the tournament in third place in the Player of the Year standings, just a handful of points behind Peter Jones in second place and fewer than 50 points in back of leader Sonny Skinner. Claxton needed to finish ahead of both players to move past them in the standings, and knew there was one simple way to achieve that goal.
“My main focus was to win the tournament,” Claxton said a few days after the event concluded. “I never worry about any other player or what they’re doing. That takes away from what I’m doing.”
Although Claxton was unable to achieve his goal of winning the tournament, he came away with an even bigger prize, capturing Player of the Year honors with a runner-up showing, one shot behind Kyle Owen. He needed to finish ahead of Skinner in the tournament to finish first in the final standings and did so by the same one-shot margin.
With the 950 points from his second place finish, Claxton ended the year with 5765 points. Skinner received 850 points for his tie for third, and wound up with 5712.5 points, 52.5 behind Claxton. After a fast start in Tuesday’s final round in nasty weather conditions, Jones fell out of the top 10 in the event and ended the year third on the points list.
Like Skinner, Claxton sent most of his career in golf as a tour pro, competing for 20 seasons on either the PGA or what is now the Web.com Tour. At the age of 47, he stepped away from his life as a tour pro, and spent his late 40s competing in Georgia PGA events while attempting to revive the struggling Hawks Point golf course in his hometown of Vidalia in the role of Director of Golf.
Ultimately, Claxton’s efforts to help keep the club in operation were unsuccessful, but that was not the case when it came to his play in the Section. After a year away from tournament golf, Claxton began playing Georgia PGA events in 2016, and played well enough to end the season tied for fourth in the Player of the Year standings after a string of solid showings.
He ended the year with a fourth place finish in the Section Championship and a tie for third in the national club pro qualifier, which earned him a spot in the field. Competing against the country’s top club professionals, Claxton held the lead briefly in the final round before finishing in a tie for third, which got him into the PGA Championship for the first time in his career later that year.
The week before he competed in that event at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, Claxton won the Georgia Open at the Ford Plantation outside Savannah, and closed out the season with another victory in the GPGA Professional Championship. Playing a limited schedule that year, he finished sixth on the points list.
Claxton turned 50 early this year, and with Hawks Point shut down, was able to concentrate his efforts on his game, although he is working part time as an instructor at Brunswick CC. He finished as low club pro in the Georgia Senior Open, tying for third behind a pair of amateurs, and won the Georgia PGA season opener at Chattahoochee GC. He added two more wins in the Georgia PGA Senior Professional Championship and the Section Championship, giving him four victories in the state in just over a year.
“I played well this year,” Claxton observed after capturing Player of the Year honors. “I take a lot of pride in how I play. I’m happy with the results and proud to have finished first in the standings.”
In addition to his play in Section events, Claxton spent much of 2018 competing in Monday qualifiers on the Champions Tour. He played his way into a pair of events in March in Tucson and Biloxi, and earned enough money to gain a spot in the Senior PGA Championship in Michigan, making the cut thanks to a second round 66.
But he qualified for only one event after that in Kansas City in September in, and after opening with a 68, struggled the next two days.
“It’s tough,” Claxton said of the qualifying process. “There’s only four spots and the guys you’re competing against are off the tour. It’s very competitive.”
Claxton came close to qualifying on several occasions, including the final regular season event of the season in Raleigh, where he lost in a playoff.
Claxton now turns his attention to the qualifying process for 2019, and will compete in a first stage qualifier in California Nov. 13-16. The finals are scheduled for Nov.27-30 in the Tampa Bay area, with only the top five finishers earning spots on next year’s tour.
There are rumors that this will be the last year of a Champions Tour qualifying tournament, limiting access to the tour even further for players like Claxton who did not have a length PGA Tour career.
Claxton played four seasons on the PGA Tour between 1997 and 2008, but was never able to retain his playing privileges for the following season. He spent 16 seasons on what is now the Web.com Tour between 1995 and 2014, winning twice and consistently finishing well up the money list. He was the first player on the tour to reach $1 million in career earnings, and still ranks third on the tour’s all-time money list.
Prior to competing in Champions Tour qualifying, Claxton has a busy Fall schedule that began with the Georgia PGA Professional Championship. He is playing in the Peters Cup matches between the Georgia PGA and GSGA Sunday and Monday, and makes his first appearance in the PGA senior Professional Championship in south Florida Oct. 25-28. He plays in the Mullins Cup, a competition between the state’s top senior club pros and amateurs a week before Champions Tour qualifying begins.
Claxton began his busy Fall with his runner-up effort at Barnsley Resort, posting scores of 71 and 73 for an even par 144 total, one shot behind Owen. His opening 71 consisted of three birdies and a double bogey on the par-3 third hole, and he again double bogeyed the hole the next day to start his round 3-over after three holes.
“Those were real tough conditions,” Claxton said of the twice-delayed second round. “I knew it was going to be difficult for anybody to shoot very low and we were all in survival mode. You just try to draw on your experience, and I was just trying to hang on and get back to even par. If I did, I knew I had a good chance to be in the mix.”
Claxton began his comeback with a 10-footer for birdie on the par- 4 seventh and hit his third shot close on the par-5 ninth for another birdie. After a bogey at the par-5 10trh, he birdied the par-5 12th, and matched birdies with playing partner Owen at the par-4 16th to tie for the lead.
Claxton bogeyed the long par-4 18th, which played almost one stroke over par in the final round to finish one behind Owen, which he was unaware of even though he was keeping Owen’s card.
“I was just trying to stay dry and that was really tough,” Claxton said. “I had no idea I was in second place. You never want to bogey the 18th, but we played it in pretty heavy rain and it was cold and getting late.”
Skinner, playing in the group in front of Claxton, was ahead of him almost the entire day after holing his second shot for eagle on the par-4 first hole. He was as many as four shots in front of Claxton early on the back nine, but Claxton pulled even with him when he birdied the 12th and Skinner took a triple bogey on the par-4 13th.
A bogey on the 18th put Skinner in the clubhouse at 1-over 145, and despite his closing bogey, Claxton was able to stay just in front of Skinner to finish second in the tournament and capture Georgia PGA Player of the Year honors.