By Mike Blum
For the past decade, the state’s top club professionals have taken turns winning the Georgia PGA Championship, played annually at Sea Island Golf Club.
Nine different players have won the last nine years, with all of the Section’s elite players over the past decade among the champions.
A glimpse of tournament results reveals the same group of players near the top almost every year, with a new name appearing among the leaders in 2011 and another poised to join the exclusive list this month.
The E-Z-GO Georgia PGA Championship is scheduled for August 27-29, and will be played on the Plantation Course, just the second time the event has been played on Seaside’s sister course.
Since 2004, the tournament has alternated between Seaside and Retreat, which is located across the street from the other two Sea Island GC layouts and does not border on the ocean, as Seaside and Plantation do.
Seaside is the primary tournament course, hosting the PGA Tour McGladrey Classic and the SEC Championship among other events.
Plantation plays to a par 72 and measures a little over 7,000 yards from the championship tees. The course consists of the original Plantation nine from the 1920s and Dick Wilson’s Retreat nine, which opened in 1960. Rees Jones combined the two in his re-design in 1998.
Long-time Sea island instructor Mike Cook, who won the Georgia PGA Championship in 1998, says Plantation “can be as tough to score on as Seaside,” which plays to a par of 70 with just two par 5s to Plantation’s four.
Water is very much in play, impacting more than half the holes, including three of the par 3s, described by Cook as “tough” despite an absence of length on the three featuring carries over hazards.
Plantation is a little tighter than Seaside, with tree lines and fairway bunkers more of a factor. Cook says the layout requires accuracy more than Seaside, with the avoidance of trouble more a concern on Plantation.
Three of the par 5s also have hazards in play, with two featuring risk/reward second shots, including the picturesque but potentially penal 18th.
The well-protected greens are a little smaller and gentler than on Seaside, but will still provide a serious test during the tournament.
The Section Championship was played at Plantation in 2007, with UGA head professional Matt Peterson winning by four strokes with a 10-under 206 total. Peterson trailed by three strokes going to the final round, but fired a 66 to pull away from the field.
Finishing tied for second at 210 was Marietta CC Director of Golf Stephen Keppler, who has compiled a remarkably consistent and successful record in the tournament in recent years.
Keppler won the tournament three times between 1990 and ’96. But after a tie for third in ’97, was mostly absent from the leader board until 2005, when he finished a distant second, seven strokes behind Tim Weinhart.
That began a run of four straight runner-up finishes on three different courses in the Section Championship for Keppler before back-to-back ties for third in 2009 and ’10. Keppler collected his fourth Georgia PGA Championship title last year at Seaside, posting a 6-under 204 total to finish two ahead of Towne Lake Hillsassistant Bill Murchison.
The Section Championship will conclude a busy month for Murchison, who began it with an appearance in the Georgia Open before traveling to the South Carolina coast to compete in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.
Murchison is one of a handful of younger club professionals to challenge the Georgia PGA’s veteran contingent in recent years. He won last year’s Championship at Berkeley Hills, qualified for the Nationwide Tour Stadion Classic at UGA and just missed the cut, and recorded a top 10 finish in the PGA PNC to earn his spot in the field at Kiawah’s Ocean Course.
David Potts, an instructor at CC of the South, has two Georgia PGA victories this year, and tied for sixth in the Section Championship at the Retreat Course two years ago.
Murchison and Potts head the list of Georgia PGA members looking to win the Section Championship for the first time. The roster of recent champions in the event includes all of the Section’s most prominent players over the past decade.
Keppler and Weinhart have 11 Player of the Year titles among them, with Weinhart’s seven from 2002-05 and each of the last three years. His seven-shot win at Seaside in ’05 is his lone Georgia PGA Championship victory, but he also has five other finishes of fourth or better, placing third and second the last two years.
Weinhart, an instructor with the Nuclear Golf program based at the Standard Club, did not play well when the Section Championship was played at Plantation in ’07, the only time in the past decade he has been outside the top 10.
Brookstone CC instructor Craig Stevens has won on both Seaside (2001) and Retreat (2010) and has finished seventh or better every year in the tournament since 1998. Stevens, a two-time Player of the Year, has four runner-up finishes in the tournament and already has four second place showings in Georgia PGA events this year. He tied for fourth at Plantation in ’07.
Sonny Skinner, who has split his time this year between playing in Section events and on the Champions Tour, won a weather-delayed Georgia PGA Championship at Retreat in 2009. Skinner has four top-5 finishes in the event since he became eligible in 2006, but missed the ’07 tournament at Plantation due to injury. Skinner played on the PGA Tour and the Hogan/Buy.com/Nationwide Tour for some 15 years before joining the Georgia PGA in ‘06, capturing Player of the Year honors in his first full season.
Clark Spratlin, the head professional at Currahee Club in Hartwell, won the Section Championship by three shots over Keppler in 2008, and has been in the top 10 in the event every year since ’06. He was sixth at Plantation in ’07 and fourth last year at Seaside.
Peterson scored his first win in the Section at Plantation, and earned Player of the Year honors the next year. A veteran tour player before joining the Georgia PGA, Peterson is one of just two current Georgia PGA members to win all four of the Section’s majors. (Weinhart is the other.) He won the Georgia Open title as a young mini-tour player in 1993, shortly before his first season on the Nike Tour.
Chicopee Woods assistant Greg Lee edged Keppler by one shot in 2006 at Retreat, two years after losing to Jeff Hull, also at Retreat, by one stroke. Lee was sixth or better in the Section Championship four times between 2003 and ’09, with Hull eighth or better each of the last four years. Lee’s five Section victories include the Match Play Championship and Atlanta Open, with Hull winning six times, highlighted by the Georgia Open in 2007, when he earned Player of the Year honors.
Prior to the Hull’s win in 2004, the Georgia PGA Championship largely belonged to Keppler from 1990 to 1996, and to James Mason and Chan Reeves from ’97 to 2003.
Mason won in ’97, ’99 and 2000 before winning on the Senior PGA Tour in 2001. Reeves scored back-to-back victories at Seaside in 2002 and ’03 after losing by a shot to Stevens in ’01.
The other winner during that stretch was Cook, who edged Hull by a shot in ’98 at Retreat.