The 2018 Georgia PGA tournament schedule gets rolling with tournaments the next two weeks at two sites that should be very familiar to the participants, even if one of the two events is a new addition to the state’s golf calendar.
The Yamaha Georgia Senior Open will be played April 30-May 1 at Pinetree CC, one of the state’s more popular tournament hosts. The following week, Chattahoochee GC will be the site of the inaugural Milton Martin Honda Classic, the first points event on the Georgia PGA 2018 tournament schedule. Like Pinetree, Chattahoochee has been a frequent tournament site for the Georgia PGA in recent years.
YAMAHA GEORGIA SENIOR OPEN
The Georgia PGA Section includes some of the country’s most competitive senior club professionals, along with a strong group of senior amateurs, who will look to score the fourth win in the event by a non-professional since 2007.
The tournament’s defending champion is former Champions Tour member James Mason, who won the event for the second time in three years in 2017. Mason’s two senior victories came in northeast Georgia at the UGA course in Athens in 2015 and Chattahoochee GC in Gainesville last year. Mason also tied for second at Pinetree in last year’s Georgia PGA Senior Professional Championship, finishing six shots behind tournament winner Sonny Skinner, who also won the Georgia Senior Open in 2012.
Mason and Skinner have outstanding recent records in the Georgia Senior Open, as does Craig Stevens, who won the tournament three times in four years between 2011 and 2014 and also captured the 2012 GPGA Senior PNC at Pinetree.
Skinner and Stevens have been annual contender since both made their snior debuts in 2011. In addition to his three wins, one each at Newnan CC, the UGA course and Chattahoochee, Stevens has finishes of second, third, fourth and fifth. He tied for fifth last year at Chattahoochee, the first time he has finished more than one shot behind the winner in seven appearances in the Georgia Senior Open.
Stevens, who recently left Brookstone G&CC to become an instructor at Woodmont, has a long history of success at Pinetree, tying for second in the 2004 Atlanta Open, winning the 2012 Senior PNC by six shots and tying Mason for second in the event last year.
Skinner was second behind Stevens in the 2012 Senior PNC but reversed the order last year, finishing with a 12-under 132 total to finish six in front of Stevens and Mason. Skinner, who played on both the PGA Tour and what is now the Web.com Tour, still makes occasional starts on the Champions Tour. In his seven starts in the Georgia Senior Open, he has a win, two runner-up finishes and has never finished lower than eighth.
Mason won his first Georgia Senior Open title in his first year of eligibility in 2001 at the Orchard, the course where he is currently based, but did not play in the event again until 2013 after winning on the Champions Tour in 2002 and playing there for the next decade. Mason placed fourth and second in the Georgia Senior Open in 2013 and ‘14 before winning the event two of the last three years. He shot 10-under 134 last year at Chattahoochee to finish two in front of Skinner.
Between them, Stevens, Skinner and Mason have won six f the last seven Georgia Senior Open titles. The lone exception came in 2016 at Chattahoochee, when amateur Billy Mitchell defeated pro John L. Smith in a playoff at Chattahoochee. Stevens was one shot back in third. Smith also tied for fifth last year.
Steven Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, has contended in the tournament several times but has yet to win. Keppler lost in a playoff to Mason 2015 and has made three other strong runs at victory. Keppler will be unable to play at nearby Pinetree CC, as Marietta CC is hosting a U.S. Open qualifier the first day of the Georgia Senior Open.
Also losing in the 2015 playoff was Brunswick CC instructor Mark Anderson, who is currently fourth on the Georgia PGA Senior Division points list behind Skinner, Mason and Stevens. Other top Georgia PGA members in the field include Tommy Brannen of Augusta CC, Russ Davis and Phil Taylor of Ansley GC, Danny Elkins of Georgia Golf Center, and Charlie King of Griffin GC.
Former tour player Tim Conley is also entered, and placed third last year after a long absence from the tournament. He finished second in the Georgia Senior Open in 2008 and 2010.
A new entrant into the Georgia PGA’s senior contingent is Brian Dixon of Fox Creek. Dixon was third in the Georgia PGA Player of the Year points list in 2017, ahead of Skinner, Stevens and Mason.
Also turning 50 this year is long time tour player Paul Claxton, who has already qualified for two Champions Tour events this season. Claxton won last year’s Georgia Open at Ford Plantation in Savannah, the week before he competed in the PGA Championship after a strong showing in the 2017 PGA national club pro championship.
The strong group of amateurs includes a number of players who have contended in the tournament in recent years, headed by 2016 winner Mitchell. Mike Combs, Don Marsh, Doug Stiles, Bob Royak, Rusty Strawn, Jeff Belk, Mel Mendenhall, Jack Kearney and Larry Clark all have finishes of sixth or better in the tournament since 2011.
Pinetree will play just over 6,600 yards for the Senior Open, with players in the Super Senior division playing the course at around 6,000 yards. The course features a diverse collection of par 4s, with a trio of short, potentially vulnerable two-shotters partially offsetting an otherwise demanding group with no soft touches. Only one of the par 5s has serious length, but all four feature hazards, encroaching OB stakes or both. With one exception, the par 3s are a strong quartet, and with some of the quickest putting surfaces in metro Atlanta, Pinetree will provide an excellent all-around test of the 100-plus tournament entrants.
MILTON MARTIN HONDA CLASSIC
This is the first year for the Georgia PGA tournament, which will be played May 7-8 at Chattahoochee GC. The tournament takes the place of an event hosted by Rivermont G&CC that was played the previous four years.
Chattahoochee hosted five Georgia PGA events between 2011 and 2017, including the 2011 Match Play Championship, the 2012 Atlanta Open and the Georgia Senior Open in 2013, ‘16 and ’17. Tim Weinhart won the second of his three Match Play Championships in 2011, and Seth McCain won the 2012 Atlanta Open in a three-way playoff that included Mason, with Keppler one shot out of the playoff and Stevens two shots back.
Weinhart, a 9-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year, came up just short of earning the award for a 10th time last year, finishing just behind Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen. Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, has 16 career wins in Georgia PGA points events, winning all four of the Section’s majors.
Dixon was third on the points list and was among the early tournament entrants along with Peter Jones of Cherokee Town & CC, who was fourth in the standings. Mason and Skinner were also among those already signed up, and will look to again compete for a victory at Chattahoochee after finishing 1-2 in last year’s Georgia Senior Open. Stevens won the 2013 Georgia Senior Open at Chattahoochee and tied for fifth there last year.
Chattahoochee GC can play as long as 7,115 yards, with two par 5s in the 600-yard range and two par 3s over 220. Other than two holes around 450, the par 4s are not an especially lengthy group, with the next longest a modest 420.
Despite being located in close proximity to Lake Lanier, there are no water hazards of consequence on the course, which opened in 1960 and was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Chattahoochee is one of Georgia’s best municipal courses, and is operated by the city of Gainesville. The course was renovated in 2006 and has hosted a Hooters Tour event along with five Georgia PGA tournaments since 2011.
Chattahoochee is relatively open off the tee with most of the greens on the large side with subtle breaks that require both a deft putting touch and advanced green reading skill. In the four most recent stroke play tournaments held by the Georgia PGA at the course, the winning scores for 36 holes have ranged from 6 to 10-under.
The par 5s, even the two with length, offer scoring opportunities, as do several of the shorter par 4s, with much of the challenge found on a lengthy trio of par 3s and the two longest of the par 4s.