Over the years, the most predictable of the Georgia PGA tournaments has been the Section Championship, which has been played for more than the past two decades on St. Simons Island.
The tournament has rotated between the three outstanding courses at Sea Island Golf Club, and will be played for a third straight year at the Retreat course, with the tournament scheduled for August 26-28.
The 2018 Georgia PGA Championship was reduced from 54 to 36 holes for the second time in four years when rain washed out the second round, with the final round utilizing a shotgun start with foursomes and a.m. tee times.
Paul Claxton, a veteran tour player who has enjoyed considerable success since he began playing a full Georgia PGA schedule a few years ago, won by a shot in 2018, becoming only the second player since 2008 to win the event other than five players who have combined for 16 tournament titles dating back to 1990.
Other than former Frederica GC head pro Hank Smith, who took a job outside the Georgia Section earlier this year, the same five players won every Georgia PGA Championship from 2009 to 2017. Four of the five had won the championship previously and all five have long records of success in the event.
Stephen Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, scored the first of his three victories in the 1990s in 1990, and went 15 years before capturing his fourth title in 2011 at Seaside. Keppler has also finished second six times and third five times over the years, including a stretch from 2005 to 2014 when he never finished lower than third. He has approximately 25 career top 10s in the championship.
James Mason, who took a break from Georgia PGA events for about a decade while he was a member of the Champions Tour, won the tournament three times in a 4-year span from 1997 to 2000 before also capturing his fourth title 15 years later in 2015 at Plantation. Mason had six straight finishes of sixth or better from 1995 to 2000 and placed second, first and third from 2014-16 after returning to the event.
Craig Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, won for the first time in 2001 and added two more titles in 2010 and ’13, both at Retreat. Stevens has approximately 20 top-10s in the tournament dating back to the 1990s, including five runner-up finishes, the most recent in 2014.
Tim Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, recently joined the ranks of the Georgia PGA’s outstanding group of seniors, and has three titles in the Section Championship. He won the event for the first time in 2005 at Seaside and followed with nine straight top 10s before winning back-to-back in 2016 and ’17 at Seaside and Retreat respectively. Weinhart was never outside the top 4 between 2010 and ’17 with four of his five career runner-up finishes.
Sonny Skinner began playing a Georgia PGA schedule in 2006 after 15 years on the PGA Tour and what was originally known as the Ben Hogan Tour. He won the Georgia PGA Championship in 2009 at Retreat and 2012 at Plantation, and has placed second twice in the last three years while recording 12 top 10s since ’06.
Since 1993, the five players have combined for 22 Player of the Year honors, nine by Weinhart, four each by Keppler and Stevens, three by Mason and two by Skinner. Only four other Georgia PGA members have claimed that honor since Keppler won the first of his four straight titles in 1993, but two of those have come in the last two years.
Claxton is the 2018 Georgia PGA Player of the Year, winning both the Section Championship and a first-year event at Chattahoochee GC. He also won the Georgia Open and the Georgia PGA’s qualifier for the national club pro championship in 2017, and finished one shot out of a playoff in the recent Georgia Open. Claxton finished fourth in his Section Championship debut in 2016.
Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen was the 2017 Player of the Year and has been a frequent contender in the Section Championship with six top 10s since 2011 His best finish was a tie for second behind Smith in 2014 at Seaside.
Peter Jones, the Director of Instruction at Cherokee Town & CC, tied for second just one shot behind Weinhart at Retreat in 2017 and tied for third last year. Jones was fourth in the Player of the Year standings in 2017 and moved up to third last year behind Claxton and Skinner. Owen placed fourth in the final standings.
This will be the seventh time Retreat has hosted the Section Championship since 2004, with Stevens the only player to win twice on the course.
Retreat was originally known as the St. Simons Island Club before joining the Sea Island Golf Club family. The course was designed by Joe Lee and opened in 1976 before being extensively renovated in 2001 by brothers Mark and Davis Love, who grew up playing the course.
The Love brothers both lengthened and opened up Lee’s design, and added considerable character to the expansive putting surfaces. The result has transformed Retreat into a worthy companion course to Seaside and Plantation, with the latter currently undergoing renovation work headed up by Mark Love in advance of the 2019 PGA Tour RSM Classic in November.
Retreat is listed at playing 6,863 yards for the tournament, 140 yards longer than the blue tees. The longest of the par 4s (13 and 14) will play 20 and 25 yards shorter than the blue tees, but holes 2, 5 and 6, a trio of par 4s, will all move to the back tees as well as a pair of par 5s – Nos. 1 and 17.
At its full length of 590 yards, the 17this the only par 5 on Retreat that will likely not be reachable in two. Water is within range off the tee on the two front nine par 5s, as well as several of the par 4s, most notably the short-ish sixth, which has sported a new look in recent years after the loss of the fairway bunker that wrapped around the edge of the fairway on the right just along a lake.
Although the Loves widened the corridors of Lee’s original design, there is still a demand on accuracy off the tee, with pines, OB stakes and the occasional hazard frequently in play. Two of the mostly tame group of par 3s play over water, with none of the four sporting serious length.
The undulating putting surfaces will both test the players’ green-reading ability and skill with the flat stick, while also requiring some precise approach shots to set up birdie opportunities. The size and contour of the greens will allow for pin positions that can make some of the holes play considerably different from one day to the next, and in the seven most recent Section Championships at Retreat, the winning score has never reached double digits under par.
Prior to the Section Championship, the state’s 50-and-over club pros will compete in the GeorgiaPGASeniorChampionship, which also serves as the Section’s qualifier for the PGA Senior Professional Championship later this year.
That tournament will be played August 19-20 at the Legends at Chateau Elan. Claxton , Mason, Stevens and Skinner were among the Georgia PGA’s seven qualifiers for nationals last year, and they will be joined in the field by Weinhart, who will be making his first start in the state as a senior.
Skinner, Stevens and Mason have been regular qualifiers for the national senior club pro event in recent years, with Skinner earning medalist honors three times since 2010, most recently in 2017, and Stevens finishing first in 2012 and ’15.
Claxton won in a playoff over Mason last year at Settindown Creek after both finished at 6-under 138. Skinner and Stevens tied for third at 141, with Todd Peterson, an instructor at the Capital City Club, next at 146. Also qualifying for nationals was Doublegate CC’s Glen Herrelland Flat Creek instructor Ted Meier.
The Georgia PGA played its qualifier for the national club pro championship at the Legends in 2014, with current seniors Phil Taylor of Ansley GC winning with a score of 2-over 146 and Brian Puterbaughof the Peachtree Golf Center next at 147. Skinner tied for third at 148 on one of the more challenging courses the Georgia PGA visits.
The 2019 PGA Senior Professional Championship will be played Oct 3-6 at the Omni Barton Creek Resort in Austin, Texas.