Georgia PGA members will compete Oct. 15-16 at Barnsley Resort in Adairsville for spots in the national club professional championship, which will be played next spring in Bluffton, S.C., between Savannah and Hilton Head Island.
The Georgia PGA will not know how many spots at nationals will be available from the tournament until after the final entry date shortly before the tournament begins. Tournament Director Pat Day expects the Section will get about eight spots in the 312-player field, the number of Georgia PGA qualifiers last year.
One of those eight will be Paul Claxton, who earned his spot in the field for the PGA Professional Championship with his victory in the Georgia PGA Championship recently at Sea Island GC.
Claxton, a long-time tour player who has qualified for a handful of Champions Tour events this season, is also the defending champion for the Georgia PGA’s qualifier for nationals, winning a playoff last year at Champions Retreat outside Augusta over Matthew Sanders of Oak Mountain in Carrollton. .
Although he already has a spot in the field for next year’s nationals, Claxton has something to play for in the Georgia PGA qualifier. He is involved in a three-way battle for Georgia PGA Player of the Year honors, with the winner to be decided at Barnsley Resort.
Sonny Skinner, also a veteran tour player, has a slim lead over Claxton, with Peter Jones, the Director of Instruction at Cherokee Town & CC, just behind Claxton in third. Whichever player finishes ahead of the other two at Barnsley will likely come away with the Player of the Year title.
Claxton has qualified for nationals in his only two attempts, tying for third at the Reynolds Oconee course in 2016, and went on to tie for third in the 2017 club pro championship in his first start in that event. After 20 years of competing on the Web.com and PGA Tours, Claxton took a break from his career as a tour pro at the end of 2014 and became the head pro at Hawk’s Point in his hometown of Vidalia until it ceased operations one year ago.
Currently, Claxton is splitting his time between competing in Georgia PGA tournaments, attempting to qualify for Champions Tour events and teaching part time at Brunswick CC. He has made four Champions Tour starts in 2018, advancing from Monday qualifying three times, most recently in Kansas City a few weeks ago. He also qualified for the Senior PGA Championship off the earnings from his first two starts of the year.
Claxton has five victories in Georgia PGA tournaments since August of last year, winning the Georgia Open at Ford Plantation in Savannah and the national club pro qualifier in 2017, and the Milton Martin Honda Classic at Chattahoochee GC and Georgia PGA Senior Championship at Pinetree CC this year prior to his title in the Georgia PGA Championship.
Before he plays at Barnsley Resort, Claxton will attempt to qualify for the Champions Tour event in Raleigh, N.C., which will conclude the day before the Georgia PGA tournament tees off.
Skinner, who is familiar at juggling a playing schedule that includes tour and Georgia PGA events, is looking to earn Player of the Year honors for the third time, finishing first on the points list in his first year of eligibility in 2006 and again in 2014. He has come close on several other occasions and has been one of the most consistent performers in the Georgia PGA Section after becoming a club professional following a 15-year career on the PGA and Web.com Tours.
Since he began competing in Georgia PGA events full time in 2006, Skinner has qualified for nationals every year but one, and has twice tied for second in the Georgia PGA qualifier, as well as placing second at nationals in 2008 at Reynolds Plantation. Among his victories in the Section are two Georgia PGA Championships (2009, ’12), the Atlanta Open in 2015 and ’16 and the 2006 Match Play Championship, along with a number of senior wins since he turned 50 in 2010. He plays out of Spring Hill CC in Tifton.
In a section that has been dominated by players in their 40s and 50s for the past two decades, Jones has emerged as one of the Section’s top player in his early-to-mid 30s. While he is still looking for his first victory in a points event, Jones has come close on numerous occasions, including last year’s national club pro qualifier, where he finished third to qualify for the first time.
So far this season, Jones has finished second in both the Match Play Championship and Atlanta Open, and tied for third in the Section Championship.
Also emerging as one of the Section’s top younger players is Justin Martin, the Director of Golf at Atlanta’s First Tee facility. Martin is coming off his first victory in the Section, defeating Skinner and Jones in the semifinals and finals of the Georgia PGA Match Play Championship recently at Peachtree GC. Martin has qualified for the national club pro event each of the last two years, getting the final available spot last year in a playoff. He comes into the qualifier tied for fourth in the Player of the Year standings.
The Georgia PGA’s two most successful competitors in the national club pro qualifier over the years are Tim Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, and Woodmont instructor Craig Stevens. The two have made a combined 38 starts at nationals, with Stevens making his 20th appearance last year.
Stevens has won the Georgia PGA qualifier three times, most recently in 2010, and also was the winner when Barnsley hosted the event in 2003. He has finished second or third six times since the tournament was first played in 1997, placing third in 2005, the last time Barnsley served as the host course.
Weinhart has won the qualifier five times since 2006, with his most recent victory coming in 2016 at the Oconee course at Reynolds Plantation. He was second at Barnsley in 2005, and tied for fourth last year at Champions Retreat along with Stevens. Both players had long streaks of qualifying for nationals snapped in 2014, but have both made it each of the last three years. Weinhart is a nine-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year and Stevens has won the award four times.
Kyle Owen, the head pro at Dunwoody CC, was last year’s Georgia PGA Player of the Year and tied for fourth at Champions Retreat, making it to nationals for a third time.
Other players to make multiple appearances at nationals in recent years include Mark Anderson, an instructor at Brunswick CC; Shawn Koch, Director of Instruction at CC of the South; Gary Miller, the head pro at Jennings Mill; Bill Murchison, Directior of Instruction at Towne Lake Hills; Todd Ormsby, the head pro at Highland CC in LaGrange; Brian Puterbaugh, an instructor at the Hooch; and Phil Taylor, Director of Golf at Ansley GC.
Taylor won in 2014 at the Legends at Chateau Elan and Ormsby was the previous year’s winner at Champions Retreat.
Barnsley Resort also hosted the Georgia Open in 2008, ’09 and ’11, with current PGA Tour member Roberto Castro among the three champions. The course, designed by Jim Fazio, is among the best and strongest layouts in the state, rated at 74.8/142 from the back tees, which measure almost 7,200 yards.
The course features one of the most demanding quartets of par 3s in the state, with the four averaging 217 yards from the tips. There are also several very stout par 4s, but the par 5s are a fairly vulnerable group, with all within reach in two by longer hitters. Fazio’s design is mostly generous off the tee, with one of its primary defenses the large, quick putting surfaces.
The PGA Professional Championship, which has been held in recent years right after the U.S. Open, will be played April 28-1 at Belfair, a 36-hole facility designed by Tom Fazio, Jim’s brother. The tournament is being played earlier in the year due to the switch next year of the PGA Championship from August to May.