The Georgia Open returns to Savannah’s Ford Plantation for a third straight year, with defending
champion Paul Claxton heading up a field that consists of tour players, Georgia PGA members and
amateurs. The tournament is schedule for August 2-5.
When Claxton won last year, he became the fiirst Georgia PGA-affiliated player to win the tournament in
more than a decade. But unlike Jeff Hull and Tim Weinhart, the 2007 and 2004 tournament champions,
Claxton owes his PGA status to his long tenure as a tour player, not a club professional.
Claxton is currently teaching at Brunswick CC, but has resumed his tour career, at least on an irregular
basis, after 20 years on the Web.com and PGA Tours. Claxton has competed in three Champions Tour
events this year, and will make a few more attempts at Monday qualifiers.
One of those attempts will come Monday for the Champions Tour event in Minneapolis this week, and if
Claxton is successful in his efforts, the Georgia Open will be guaranteed a new champion for 2018.
Claxton won last year’s Georgia Open by four shots over the trio of Tim O’Neal, Dylan Freeman and
Jimmy Beck. O’Neal and Freeman are both in the field for this week’s tournament. Beck, who was also
second as an amateur in 2014 and tied for fourth at Ford Plantation in 2016, is not entered.
If Claxton does not qualify for the Champions Tour event, he will rank as one of the primary favorites
along with O’Neal and Mark Silvers, two Savannah naives who have extensive tour experience.
Silvers, who played on the Web.com Tour in 2015 and ‘16, is competing on the LatinoAmerica Tour this
year, with that tour in the midst of its mid-season break. He tied for eighth last year at Ford Plantation
and tied for fourth in 2010, when the tournament was played at Savannah Harbor.
O’Neal spent six full seasons on the Web.com Tour, the last in 2014, and won three times during his stint
on the LatinoAmerica Tour, but at the age of 45 has curtailed his tour schedule. He has competed in the
Georgia Open the last three times it was held in Savannah, and placed second in 2010, third in ’16 and
tied for second last year. He also qualified for the inaugural Web.com Tour event at the Landings in
Savannah earlier this year and made the cut.
If he wins this week’s Georgia Open, O’Neal will share the rare distinction with Claxton of winning both
the Georgia Amateur and Georgia Open. Claxton won the state amateur at Athens CC in 1992 shortly
after completing his college career at Georgia, with O’Neal winning five years later at Idle Hour in Macon
following his senior year at Jackson State.
Claxton, who lives in the southeast Georgia community of Claxton, won last year’s Georgia Open one
week before competing in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, and has won three other
Georgia PGA events since then – the 2017 GPGA PNC qualifier and 2018 GPGA Senior PNC event, along
with Georgia PGA event at Chattahoochee GC earlier this year. He was also the low pro in the 2018
Georgia Senior Open.
The only other former Georgia Open champions in the field are Jonathan Fricke of Peachtree Corners
and Weinhart, both of whom won the event at the Legends at Chateau Elan. Fricke, a former Web.com
Tour player, won back-to-back in 2012 and ’13. Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf
Links, and Hull, former head pro at Port Armor (now Reynolds Landing), are the only club professionals
to win the Georgia Open since Stephen Keppler won consecutive years in 1994-95.
Since then, the event has been dominated by tour players, several of whom won the event multiple
times. Among them are Dave Schreyer (1996, 2001), Dicky Thompson (1998-99), Jody Bellflower (2000,
’02), Jay McLuen (2001, ’14) and Fricke. Other prominent winners include former PGA Tour players
Justin Bolli (2003) and Tim Conley (2005), current Web.com and recent PGA Tour player Roberto Castro
(2009) and current Web.com member Samuel Del Val (2010). Hull is currently the head coach of the
women’s golf team at Furman, with 2008 Georgia Open champion Bryant Odom the head coach of the
Kennesaw State men’s team.
Among the tour players competing in the event, the two with the best records of recent success in the
Georgia Open are Barrett Waters of Dallas and Blake Palmer of Dawsonville.
Waters, who has won four times this year on the Open Golf Atlanta tour and is the leading money
winner, has placed sixth or better each of the last three years in the Georgia Open, taking fourth and
fifth at Ford Plantation. He played his college golf at West Georgia. Palmer was the runner-up in 2016
and placed seventh at Pinetree in ’14. He has a win this season on the Open Golf Atlanta tour and is
second on the money list behind Waters.
Former Kennesaw State golfer Matt Nagy of Buena Vista had three top-3 finishes in the Georgia Open
between 2012 and ’15, but has not played well at Ford Plantation the last two years. He has a recent
Open Golf Atlanta win and is fourth on the money list.
Other non-Georgia PGA pros of note in the field include Deven Broadaway of Adairsville, who tied for
fourth in 2016; Kelby Burton of Evans, third as an amateur at Pinetree in 2014; former Georgia Tech
golfer Drew Czuchry, who tied for eighth at Ford Plantation last year; Dylan Freeman, a member of a
national championship team at Coastal Georgia and last year’s co-runner-up; Zach Jaworski of
Alpharetta, who tied for eighth in 2017; Ben Kishigian of Warner Robins, who tied for fourth in 2016;
Augusta’s Emmanuel Kountakis, who had a pair of top 10s in 2014 and ’15 while he was on the Augusta
State golf team; Travis Williamson of Brunswick; and recent Georgia Southern golfer Scott Wolfes of St.
Simons, a member of the Canadian Tour.
Other than Claxton, it’s been a while since a Georgia PGA member contended in the Georgia Open. The
best showings at Ford Plantation have been by Capital City Club assistant J.P. Griffin, who was 12 th last
year and tied for ninth in ’16. Weinhart tied for 12 th that year, but is only top 10 in the tournament since
his victory was a tie for 10 th at Barnsley Gardens in 2011.
The top 10 players on the Georgia PGA Player of the Year points list are all in the field, led by No. 1 Peter
Jones of Cherokee Town & CC. James Mason of the Orchard is second, followed by Brian Dixon of Fox
Creek; Sonny Skinner of Spring Hill CC; Claxton; Craig Stevens of Woodmont; Kyle Owen of Dunwoody
CC, the 2017 Player of the Year; Justin Martin of the First Tee of Atlanta; Weinhart, a 9=time Player of
the Year; and Hank Smith of Frederica GC. Griffin is currently 15 th . The Georgia PGA members compete
amongst themselves for points in the tournament.
The only amateur to win the tournament since 1990 was former Georgia State golfer Davin White, who
won at Pinetree in 2015 and has since turned pro. David Mackey of Watkinsville, a member of the UGA
golf team, and Wyatt Larkin of Morganton, who plays at Kennesaw State, both tied for fifth last year,
and return to the field. Larkin won the Yamaha Atlanta Open in 2017.
Other top amateurs in the field are Georgia Southern golfer Brett Barron of Cumming, the recent
Georgia Amateur champion; two-time Georgia Amateur champion David Noll of Dalton; Savannah’s
Doug Hanzel, one of the state’s top senior amateurs and a fourth place finisher at Savannah Harbor in
2010; Atlanta’s Chris Waters, one of the state’s top mid-amateurs; Nick Cassini, a member of Georgia’s
1999 NCAA Championship team who played professionally before regaining his amateur status; and
current collegians Nick Budd of Georgia State; Connor Coffee of Kennesaw State; Nolan Miller of
Mercer; and recent Cincinnati golfer Jared O’Kelley of Canton.
Ford Plantation is listed at 7,262 yards for the tournament, about 150 less than its maximum distance.
The exceptional Pete Dye layout (one of only two in Georgia) was built in the late 1980s on property that
once served as the winter home of industrialist Henry Ford, but only recently has it attracted much
notice after a $7 million-plus renovation.
The tree-lined front nine circles around the interior of the property, with six different lakes bordering
holes 2 through 7. The compact back nine is surrounded on three sides by Lake Clara, named for Ford’s
wife, and was constructed on the site of a rice plantation amid the marshes.
Dye expanded the width of the fairways on the parkland style front nine in an extensive renovation, but
the presence of hazards on most holes still places a premium on accuracy. Most of the water in play is
either outside the fairways or borders greens with the exception of three par 3s that require carries to
reach the putting surfaces but are all of modest length.
About half the par 4s have significant length, with only one of the par 5s easily reachable in two. As
much of a challenge as Dye’s layout presents tee to green, there is also plenty of pressure on all facets of
the short game, with some testy pitch shots around some of the slightly raised greens and some pesky
pot bunkers also a factor.
The outstanding putting surfaces have both speed and slope and are firm enough to require precise
approach shots to prevent potential three-putts or delicate chips or pitches. The course has been
favorably received by the players, with most of the top finishers returning for another round with Dye’s
appealing but demanding creation.