The 2018 Georgia PGA Senior Championship provided a fair representation of the age range and varying experience at the national level of the Section’s top senior club professionals.
Paul Claxton, who turned 50 earlier this year, tied for first with James Mason, who shot his age of 67 in the final round at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek to match his much younger opponent at 6-under 138 for the 36-hole event.
Craig Stevens and Sonny Skinner, both annual qualifiers for the national senior club pro championship, tied for third at 141 to continue their long qualification streaks of eight and nine years respectively.
Joining the Section’s four top senior players at nationals was a trio of players with little or no experience at the national level.
Todd Peterson, who turned 50 less than a month before the Georgia PGA Senior Championship, placed fifth at 146 and will compete in a national club pro championship for the first time, having never made it to the PGA PNC before he turned 50.
Two golfers tied for the final two spots at 149 after beginning the final round three shots outside the line of a top-7 finish which was needed to qualify for nationals.
Ted Meier and Glen Herrell both followed 77s the first day with 72 and tied for sixth place, moving past several golfers who struggled in the final round. Both have qualified for the national senior club pro event previously, but Herrell qualified just once prior to Tuesday, also making it to nationals from Settindown Creek three years ago. Meier, age 67 like Mason, last qualified more than a decade ago in 2006.
Danny Elkins, who won the GPGA Senior PC in 2011 but has not qualified for nationals since, is the first alternate after finishing at 150, and has realistic hopes of competing in the 2018 PGA Senior Professional Championship later this year in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Claxton was exempt into nationals after making the cut in the recent PGA Senior Championship in Michigan, something he admitted he did not know “until I stood on the first tee yesterday. I had no idea.”
The 50-year-old Claxton is new to the regulations involving entry into PGA events, having spent two decades of his career in golf as a member of either the PGA Tour or what is now the Web.com Tour. Claxton last played on the Web.com Tour in 2014, and began competing in Georgia PGA events in 2016.
In his first appearance last year in the national club professional championship, Claxton nearly won the event, tying for third to earn a spot in last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte. He tied for 38th in the 2018 PGA PC just over a week ago, missing by three shots of getting into a playoff for a return to the 2018 PGA Championship.
Claxton has collected four wins in Georgia PGA events since last summer, winning the 2017 Georgia Open at Ford Plantation and the Georgia PGA qualifier for nationals at Champions Retreat. He opened 2018 with a victory in a GPGA event at Chattahoochee GC and was low pro in the Georgia Senior Open, placing third behind two amateurs.
Including the Senior PGA, Claxton has competed in three Champions Tour events in 2018, and will resume his attempts at long distance Monday qualifying when the tour ends its long run of majors.
Claxton, who teaches three days a week at Brunswick CC, has to take a lengthy drive or flight to just about every tournament he participates in from his residence in the small southeast Georgia community of Claxton, where his in-laws also reside.
His reward for playing in the Georgia PGA Senior PC was a trophy and a $1,600 check, along with the points toward a likely Senior Player of the Year Award in the Section.
Claxton said he “did not play any differently than if I was trying to qualify. Anytime you play you want to win.”
When Claxton finished his first round on Monday with a 68 on the demanding Settindown Creek layout, he held a 3-shot lead, with play suspended for the day with players still on the course.
Stevens, who was 4-under for the day when a thunderstorm passed through the area, added a fifth birdie Tuesday morning to take the lead from Claxton with a 67. A pair of early birdies in the final round gave Claxton the outright lead, but he got a serious challenge from Mason, who spent more than a decade playing the Champions Tour after winning an event in which he earned a spot in the field in Monday qualifying.
Mason, who shot 71 in the first round, birdied the first four holes in the second round, and pulled ahead of Claxton with three birdies in a four-hole stretch on the back nine. He fell back into a tie with a bogey and Claxton took the lead with a birdie at the par-3 17th after a superb tee shot. But Claxton bogeyed the 18th for a 70, sending the two back to the 18th tee for what turned out ot be a two-hole playoff.
After a pair of pars on the first extra hole, Claxton hit his approach shot on 18 close the second time and holed the putt for a winning birdie.
Mason, who lives in Dillard and plays out of the Orchard in Clarkesville, tied for second in the senior club pro nationals several years ago, and does not play like someone who is halfway between senior eligibility and the age of 85. He carded seven birdies with the combination of some deft approach shots and a few putts of length, along with some nice par saves. He took home $1,200 for his runner-up finish.
Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, slipped to a 74 after his opening 67, but easily quailified for nationals, closing out his final round with just his second birdie of the day at the 18th. That tied him with Skinner, who lives in Sylvester and is the pro at Spring Hill in Tifton. Skinner shot 74-67, playing bogey-free golf in the final round.
The tournament was the start of a very busy week for Skinner, who will fly to Colorado on Wednesday to compete in this week’s U.S. Senior Open. He did he prep work last week on site and two rounds at Settindown Creek, albeit from shorter tees, should be an asset when he tees it up in Colorado Springs on Thursday.
Peterson, an instructor at Capital City Club, shot a pair of 73s to place fifth at 146 and qualify for his first trip to nationals.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “The last five years, golf has not been as much fun.”
After a difficult fall of 2017 in which Peterson faced differing medical issues, he said he “played more this spring than I have in many years. My wife said she has never seen somebody so excited to turn 50.”
After his opening 73, Peterson seemed head for a higher score when he bogeyed the two par 5s that are among Settindown Creek’s first four holes. But he made only one more bogey after that, and it was a good one, as he made “birdie” after having to re-tee on the par-4 ninth. He birdied the par-5 10th and grinded out pars on his last eight holes to earn a spot at nationals.
Peterson said a recent trip to Pine Valley “inspired me,” and he is looking forward to nationals this fall in south Florida, where he has relatives and friends in the area.
Herrell, the head pro at Doublegate in Albany, was 4-under at one point on his round before taking a triple bogey on the par-3 17th. Meier, an instructor at Flat Creek, moved up with a pair of late birdies after getting off to a 2-over start in his final round.
Despite the opening 77, Meier said he “knew a good round would have a chance,” and was rewarded for his efforts, as some of his fellow seniors ran into some serious roadblocks on the difficult Settindown track.
Elkins, the head pro at Georgia Golf Center, suffered through a miserable day on the greens, while Fox Creek instructor Brian Dixon and Griffin GC head pro Charlie King were done in by one terrible hole each.
Marietta CC Director of Golf Stephen Keppler, who won the event at Settindown Creek in 2014 and has qualified for nationals each of the last six years, withdrew shortly before his tee time in the opening round.