Midway through the final round of the Yamaha Atlanta Open, Matthew Evans was the lone player among the leaders moving forward, with Hank Smith one of a number of contenders unable to make a serious run up the leader board.
Before play was temporarily halted by an incoming thunderstorm less than an hour later, Evans and Smith passed each other in the standings heading in opposite directions and the tournament had taken on an entirely different outlook.
Smith surged to the front with five birdies in a six-hole stretch, the last of the five coming just before play was halted.
Evans, meanwhile, suffered two double bogeys in a span of three holes, the first coming when he inadvertently played the wrong ball from the fairway on the par-5 ninth hole.
Smith went from 2-under par for the tournament and four strokes behind Evans to 7-under and the leader by three. After play resumed late in the afternoon on a rain-soaked course, Smith preserved his lead with some deft short game play, ending up with a three-stroke margin of victory.
Thanks to his birdie binge that began on the hole that started Evans’ struggles, Smith shot a final round 68, the only sub-70 score on the day. He finished at 6-under 138, three shots in front of Jeff Gotham, who shared the opening round lead with Evans at 68.
Evans ran into one more snag after play resumed, four-putting the short par-4 16th for a triple bogey. He finished in a tie for 7th at even par 144 after a closing birdie in the fading light on the difficult par-4 18th at Atlanta National, which gave the state’s top club professionals and a strong amateur field a battle for 36 holes.
Smith, recently named head professional at Frederica Club on St. Simons Island, is a former mini-tour player who worked as an assistant and instructor at Frederica for almost six years before being promoted to the head professional job.
It was just Smith’s second start in a Georgia PGA points event since he joined the PGA program, with a close call in last year’s Atlanta Open his only appearance in a Section tournament other than a team event or the Assistants’ Championship. Smith tied for 3rd in the 2013 Atlanta Open at Polo G&CC, with his 69 in the rain-shortened event leaving him only one shot out of a playoff.
Smith began the final round of this year’s Atlanta Open two shots off the lead after an opening round 70 highlighted by three straight birdies beginning at the demanding par-4 eighth. He teed off two groups in front of the leaders in the final round, and was even par through eight holes with a birdie on the short, par-3 sixth and a bogey after a poor second shot on the par-4 seventh.
After missing a birdie opportunity at the eighth, Smith birdied the par-5 ninth from six feet after laying up with his second shot on the par 5. The birdie pulled him within three of Evans’ lead, and Smith followed with an 8-footer for birdie at the 10th.
After a par at the 11th, Smith was tied for the lead at 4-under and went in front for good when he birdied the par-3 12th with a putt in the 10-to-12 foot range. Smith came up just short of the par-5 13th in two and chipped it close for an easy birdie, and slipped in an 8-footer for birdie at the 14th shortly before play was delayed.
By that time, Smith’s lead was three shots, and he had to wait almost two hours before getting back on the course and finishing off his victory.
Smith could see the dark clouds approaching and although he “wanted to keep going, I figured that was coming,” he said of the suspension of play. “I felt I could play well enough once we came back out.”
With four holes left to play, Smith wound up in bunkers on each of the next three holes, saving par with a pair of superb shots from wet greenside bunkers on 15 and 17. He drove into one of the pesky pot bunkers that dot the fairway on the short, apr-4 16th and settled for bogey after playing a cautious second shot just short of the green.
“I hit it exactly where I tried to hit it,” Smith said of his shot from the fairway bunker on 16, which offered several possibilities for disaster if he had tried to go at the pin.
“That was one of the best shots that I hit. I felt I could get it up and down from there.”
Smith ended his round with a two-putt par from long range at the 18th, with Gotham closing within two of the lead with a birdie at 14. He needed one more to give himself a chance to catch Smith, but parred the next three holes before a bogey at 18.
Gotham, the Director of Golf at Cateechee, briefly shared the lead with Smith, Evans and amateur Billy Mitchell after a tap-in birdie at the 10th, but three birdies by Smith and a bogey by Gotham at the 12th left him four off the lead when play was halted.
David Potts, an instructor at Country Club of the South, and Chris Nicol, an assistant at Georgia Golf Center, tied for 3rd at 142. Potts, who won back-to-back Georgia PGA tournaments in 2012, shot 69-73, carding seven birdies the first day. Nicol, who scored his second Georgia PGA victory earlier this year in the inaugural Rivermont Championship, shot back-to-back 71s.
Mitchell tied for 5th at 143 to earn low amateur honors. Like Potts, Mitchell had seven birdies in his opening 69, and a birdie at the 10th earned him a short-lived share of the lead. Like Gotham, he bogeyed the 12th, but a birdie at 13 put him in 2nd place by himself when the storm arrived, three behind Smith. A double bogey at the 17th dropped him out of 2nd, and he bogeyed the 18th for a 74.
Also tying for 5th was Todd Ormsby, an instructor at Braelinn Golf Club and the winner of the 2013 Georgia PGA PNC qualifier. Orsmby shot 70 in the final round with five birdies.
Evans, the head professional at Rivermont, was among a group of four players tying for 7th at 144. He had only one bogey in an opening round 68, and made just one bogey the second day. Unfortunately, his closing 76 included two double bogeys and a triple, with the first double bogey the most damaging.
Birdies at holes 3 and 6 gave Evans the lead, and he was in nice position after his second shot at the par-5 ninth. Evans and playing partner Erik Martin, who was only two shots off Evans’ lead at the time, could not see their second shots land at the ninth, with the two approximately equidistant from the hole but at least 10 yards apart.
After Evans hit his third onto the green, Martin noticed that his ball, the same brand as Evans’, had a different mark from the one he put on his ball. The two players realized they had gone to the wrong ball, with Evans assessed a two-stroke penalty for playing the wrong ball.
Martin bogeyed the hole without a penalty shot, and was in contention with Mitchell for low amateur before taking an 11 on the par-5 15th that included three penalty shots resulting from a shot he thought was lost in a hazard but was actually in play.
Evans added a second double bogey when he clipped branches with his tee shot and approach on the 11th, with the second failing to clear the hazard guarding the green. A birdie at the 15th gave him a shot at placing 2nd, but that ended when he tripled the 16th.
Also tying for 7th were Sonny Skinner of River Pointe in Albany, Champions Retreat head professional John Wade and Cherokee assistant Peter Jones.
Skinner had five birdies on the back nine in the final round the second day for a 70, with Wade closing with a 71 after shooting 4-under 32 on the front nine. Jones, who also contended in the recent Georgia PGA tournament at Chicopee Woods, got off to a fast start with three birdies on his first seven holes in an opening round 70, but managed just one birdie the next day and shot 74.
Mark Nickerson, an Atlanta National member, was second among the amateurs at 145, tying for 11th with a group that included former Atlanta Open champion Tim Weinhart, who shot a final round 70.
Smith is a Waycross native who played in college at both Georgia Tech and Alabama in the early 1990s.
“Playing at Alabama sounds a lot better now than it did then,” he says of his alma mater, which recently won its second straight NCAA Championship.
Smith played various mini-tours off and on for about a decade.
“I won a tournament or two,” he said. “Nothing major.” He left the mini-tours in 2008 and returned to Sea Island Golf Club, where he had been off and on “for a number of years,” before moving to Frederica Club.
For the last two years, Smith has worked as an instructor and manager of the club’s learning center, and his job duties will be a little different as head pro, although he says he expects “to still teach a fair amount. But there are a lot more moving parts to this job than just teaching.”
Unlike life on the mini-tours, when he played for a living, Smith says he “just plays for fun now,” with geography as big an impediment to his playing schedule as job responsibilities.
“It’s hard to get out to Atlanta,” he says of the six-hour drive from St. Simons Island to most of the Georgia PGA tournaments, a fact of life for the Section’s members who live along the coast.
Smith’s return home from the Atlanta Open was made a little more pleasant thanks to the winner’s check for $4,000 that accompanied him.
The tournament was presented by Bushnell/Bolle.