Several of the Georgia PGA’s top players will have a little extra incentive as they compete in the Section’s Match Play Championship, which began in mid-March.
The 64-man field will be whittled down to four players, who will play in the semifinals and finals August 24 at Peachtree Golf Club. The first four rounds will be played at courses determined by the participants, with the players having approximately one month to schedule and complete their matches before the semifinals.
The defending champion is Brian Dixon, an instructor at Fox Creek. It was Dixon’s second victory in the event, the first coming in 1997, and snapped an eight-year streak of third-round defeats for Dixon, who had not advanced beyond the quarterfinals since 2001.
Dixon ended five of his six matches on the 17th hole, including a 2&1 decision over 10th seeded Greg Lee in the championship match. Dixon’s toughest match came earlier that day in the semifinals, when he needed 20 holes to get past No. 1 seed Craig Stevens.
The path to a championship was not an easy one for the 13th seeded Dixon, who defeated four of the top 12 seeds in his final four matches, beginning with a 2&1 win in the third round over Kyle Owen. Having finally got past his third round barrier, Dixon followed with a 2-up decision over Matthew Evans in the quarterfinals before his semifinal and final victories over Stevens and Lee.
Dixon’s two Match Play Championships came 17 years apart, and his first round opponent also has two Match Play titles, with his two victories separated by 19 years. Gregg Wolff, the head pro at Willow Lake in Metter, won the tournament in 1984 and 2003, but has not been a factor in the event since he reached the finals in 2005.
Wolff lost to Tim Weinhart in the finals that year, and Weinhart will be one of the more motivated players in the field for this year’s tournament. Weinhart has three victories in one of the Georgia PGA’s four “majors,” including back-to-back titles in 2011 and ’12.
Weinhart, an instructor at the Standard Club, could not defend his title in 2013 when the field filled up before the entry deadline, and he and several other top players were unable to compete. Weinhart was upset in the second round last year by Kevin Gibbs of Oak Mountain Golf Club, a rare early-round loss for the seven-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year.
Since 2000, Weinhart has won the Match Play Championship three times, lost twice in the finals, reached the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals once.
If the second-seeded Weinhart and Dixon win their first three matches, they would meet in the quarterfinals. Dixon is seeded seventh this year.
Stevens has history on his side this year as he shoots for a third Match Play title. He won the event for the first time in 1985 and captured his second Match Play title in 2000, 15 years later. It’s been 15 years since his last win in the event for Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone Golf & Country Club, so it would seem that he’s due for a third title.
Since his second Match Play Championship, Stevens has lost three times in the finals, the first in 2002, the last two in 2012 to Weinhart and in 2013 to Peachtree head pro Donn Perno. Stevens also has reached the semifinals three times and the quarterfinals once. He’s seeded fourth in this year’s field.
Sonny Skinner is seeded first in the field after earning Player of the Year honors in 2014, but his track record in the match play event is spotty since he won the tournament the first year he was eligible to participate in it in 2006. He lost his opening match each of the next two years, but has played well in the tournament several times since, reaching the semifinals in 2010 and the quarterfinals in 2012 and last year.
The tournament hasn’t ended well for Skinner the last two years. He was eliminated on a coin flip in 2013 when his early round opponent could not fit his match with Skinner into his schedule. Skinner handily won his first three matches last year before suffering a surprisingly one-sided 7&6 loss to Jennings Mill assistant Seth McCain.
Skinner is in the top quarter of the bracket along with three former tournament champions. Clark Spratlin, Director of Golf at the Currahee Club, won the event three times in four years in the early 2000s, and has consistently won multiple matches annually since. He has reached the semifinals and quarterfinals twice each, but has been knocked out seven times in the third round, including each of his last four Match Play appearances.
Spratlin is seeded eighth, with his possible second round opponent 2008 Match Play champion Shawn Koch, the Director of Instruction at Country Club of the South. Since his win at Callaway Gardens in 2008, Koch reached the semifinals in ’09 and made it to the third round in 2010 and ’12.
The other seed in the top bracket is Lee, an assistant at Chicopee Woods. Lee, the ninth seed, won at Callaway Gardens in 2007 and has a long history of success in the tournament. He reached the finals in 2001 (losing to Spratlin) and last year, and has advanced to the semifinals and quarterfinals three times each.
Only one player in Stevens’ quarter of the draw is a past champion. Country Club of the South instructor David Potts won the Match Play in 2010 at the UGA course in Athens, but is unseeded after playing light tournament schedules in recent years. Potts reached the third round in 2011 and the quarterfinals in ’12, losing to eventual champion Weinhart.
Potts will play Standard Club Director of Golf Scott Curiel in the first round. Curiel made it to the third round three straight times from 2011-13.
Rivermont head pro Matthew Evans is the fifth seed and has played well in the tournament the past five years, reaching the quarterfinals in 2010 (where he lost to Potts), the semifinals in ’11, the third round in ’12 and the quarterfinals last year, where he again lost to the eventual champion.
The bottom of that quarter of the bracket includes Brookfield Director of Instruction Michael Parrott and Marietta Golf Center instructor Ted Fort, who also have successful match play records in recent years. Parrott, seeded 12th, was a finalist in 2009, losing to fellow ex-Georgia Bulldog Matt Peterson, and has reached the third round, semifinals and quarterfinals the past four years. Fort has advanced to at least the third round three times in the last five years.
The quarter of the bracket with Weinhart and Dixon includes several other top senior players in addition to Wolff. Georgia Golf Center instructor Danny Elkins won the tournament in 1990 and reached the quarterfinals as recently as 2013. Cherokee Town & Country Club Director of Instruction Russ Davis remains a competitive player in Section events and is seeded 10th.
The 15th seed is Chicopee Woods Director of Instruction Jeff Frasier, who has reached the third round twice and the quarterfinals once since 2008.
The highest seed in the bottom bracket is Dunwoody Country Club’s Owen, who has lost to the eventual champion each of the last two years. He reached the quarterfinals in 2013 before falling to Perno and made it as far as the third round last year. Owen is the No. 3 seed and could face Perno in the second round.
Sixth seed Hank Smith is making his first appearance in the tournament after winning two of the Georgia PGA’s four majors last year – the Atlanta Open and Section Championship. Smith the head pro at Frederica Club on St. Simons, is part of a group of eight players from the southeast part of the state who will be paired together for the first three rounds.
Also in that part of the bracket are No. 11 seed John Wade of Sea Island Golf Club, and Wilmington Island Club head pro Patrick Richardson, who has made it to the third round four times since 2004, but has never gone beyond that.
One of the more interesting potential second round matchups would involve McCain, the No. 14 seed, and Towne Lake Hills assistant Bill Murchison. Both have reached either the quarterfinals or semifinals each of the last two years, with McCain knocking out Spratlin and Skinner in successive matches last year. Murchison has made it to at least the quarterfinals four times since 2009, but is unseeded this year.