At the age of 68, James Mason is showing no signs of slowing down.
Mason bettered his age – a fairly routine occurrence for the former Champions Tour player – in the final round of the Championship at Berkeley Hills to wind up in a playoff with a pair of college golfers. His closing 66 got him into the clubhouse with a 7-under 137 total for 36 holes, a score subsequently matched by Georgia State’s Josh Edgar and Cumming’s Connor Pollman, a member of the golf team at Lee University in Tennessee.
It didn’t take long for Mason to dispatch his two younger opponents, rolling in a birdie putt on the first extra hole – Berkeley Hills’ uphill, par-4 18th. The victory was the first in a non-senior Georgia PGA event for Mason since he captured his fourth Georgia PGA Championship in 2015.
Mason’s days of playing regularly on the Champions Tour — where a victory as a Monday qualifier in 2002 led to a career of over a decade — may be over, but he remains a force in the Georgia PGA, whether competing against his fellow (although slightly younger) seniors or against players almost 50 years his junior.
“I’m old enough to be their grandfather,” Masons said of his two playoff opponents. “I still love to compete. As long as I stay in good health, I’ll keep at it.”
Mason said he will continue to tee it up against younger players “until it gets to where I can’t compete.” Obviously that day has yet to arrive, as Mason’s 66 – the low round of the tournament – attests.
After an opening 71, Mason was three shots off the lead held by fellow seniors Sonny Skinner and Brian Dixon, along with long-hitting Jacob Tilton, one of the younger players among the Section’s top competitors.
With none of the 15 players ahead of him after the opening round able to pull away from a crowded leader board, Mason got off a hot start Tuesday with birdies on 1 and 3, the latter a perilous risk/reward par 5. He closed out the opening nine with birdies at 8 and 9, the latter a similar and parallel hole to the 18th.
A third straight birdie at the short, par-5 10thmoved Mason to the top of the standings along with Edgar and Gus Wagoner, an assistant at the Capita City Club who won the 2013 Berkeley Hills tournament while still in college, beginning a run of six straight victories in the event by amateurs.
Mason lost his share of the lead when he bogeyed the long, par-4 13th, but got it back with a birdie at the par-5 15th. He became the first player to get to 7-under in the tournament when he holed a downhill birdie putt at the par-4 17th, and almost added another birdie at the 18th, watching with dismay as his putt horseshoed around the cup and out.
Edgar, playing two groups behind Mason, was the first player with a chance to catch Mason, and he did so with matching birdies at 15 and 17. Like Mason, he made his move early with a birdie on the first hole, an eagle at the third and a birdie at the short, par-4 sixth, one of the easiest holes at Berkeley Hills.
The only bogey on the day for Edgar came at the par-5 seventh, and he stayed close to the top before his two late birdies. Also like Mason, he had a good look at birdie on the 18th, but his putt lipped out.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Edgar, a native of Australia who will be a senior at Georgia State this fall. Berkeley Hills has been the home course for Georgia State for years, and Edgar said he feels “more comfortable here because I’ve played so much more golf out here.”
Edgar was in good spirits after his playoff loss. “It would have been nice to win, but (Mason) made a great putt in the playoff.”
While Edgar has been a regular the past three seasons for the Panthers, Pollman redshirted his freshman year in 2018-19 at Lee, a Division II school with a sizeable number of Georgia golfers on its roster.
Pollman opened with a 69, with none of his five birdies coming on any of Berkeley Hills’ par 5s or the vulnerable par-4 sixth. He turned in 1-under in the final round, carding a birdie at the sixth, before collecting his only par-5 birdie of the tournament at the 10th. He got to 6-under with a birdie at the long 13thbefore making it a 3-way playoff with his fourth birdie of a bogey-free round at the 18th, hitting his approach shot within 4 feet.
A 15-footer for par at the par-5 15thpreserved Pollman’s no-bogey round, and gave him “a chance to win for the first time in a tournament of this caliber. “
Pollman played respectably in the tournament at Berkeley Hills last year, but stepped it up earlier this week. “I’m pretty proud of myself, putting two good rounds together.”
Wagoner, Tilton and Skinner tied for fourth at 139, with the trio sharing second among the club professionals.
Tilton, an assistant at Ansley GC, used his length off the tee to shoot 68 in the first round, making eagle on both par 5s on the front nine and playing the four par 5s in 5-under. He had three more birdies on par 5s in the second round, but had only one other birdie and settled for a 71. An errant lay-up off the tee at the sixth led to a costly bogey, and after getting back to 6-under with a birdie at the 10th, he suffered back-to-back bogeys at the short, par- 3 11thand par-4 12th.
After an opening birdie, Skinner made a sloppy double bogey on the par-4 second and never really got back into contention. He birdied the 15thand chipped in from across the green on the 16th, before parring in for a 71.
Wagoner, Tilton and Edgar were the only players to get to 6-under on the front nine of the final round, with Wagoner scoring three birdies on his first six holes. He had an up and down back nine with two birdies and three bogeys. Wagoner hit his tee shot out of bounds on the tenth for a bogey, and after getting back to 6-under with a birdie at 15, missed a short par putt at 16 to damage his hopes of a second win in the event.
Seven players including Dixon tied for seventh at 140. Dixon, an instructor at Fox Creek, shot a no-bogey 68 the first day, but had three bogeys on his card in the final round, including costly ones at holes 10 and 16. Back-to-back birdies at 14 an 15, the latter his only one on a par 5 in the tournament, gave Dixon some hope, but he made bogey on the16th after just missing the green long with his second shot.
Veterans Craig Stevens and Paul Claxton both closed with 68s to finish at 140. Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, was 4-under after 10 holes in the second round, but his charge stalled at that point. Claxton, a long-time tour player who teaches at Brunswick CC, had to withdraw recently from the PGA Senior Championship with a bad back, returning to action at Berkeley Hills. He had six birdies in his 68, closing out the tournament with birdies on his final two holes.
Georgia Southern golfer Jacob Bayer, who won the tournament at Berkeley Hills — his home course — in 2016, got to 5-under with his fourth birdie of the final round at the 12th. But he double-bogeyed the 13thand ended up at 140 after a 69.
Royal Lakes assistant Luke James shot back-to-back 70s to tie for seventh, closing out his tournament with three birdies on his final four holes. Anthony Cordes, and assistant at Cherokee Town & CC, and Crosswinds assistant Clint Colbert both shot 69-71 to tie for seventh. Cordes got to 5-under with a birdie at the 10thin the final round, but bogeyed the next two holes. Colbert carded birdies on holes 7, 8 and 9 to get to 4-under for the tournament, but did not make another birdie until the 18th.
Mason shot 71-66 to win the event and take home $1,800 for his victory. He said he “played well both days, but yesterday I did not make any putts.” Mason enjoyed an excellent ball-striking round the second day, with none of his seven birdies in regulation coming on putts of length. He said his playoff birdie in the 15-foot range was his longest putt of the day.
With his win, Mason moves up to third on the points list behind Skinner in first and 9-time Player of the Year Tim Weinhart in second. Mason was the Georgia PGA Player of the Year in 1997, ’98 and 2000, all shortly before he turned 50 in 2001. He won six Section events during that span, including three Georgia PGA Championships and the 2000 Atlanta Open, also won the Georgia Senior Open and Senior PNC in ’01.
But Mason’s career path took a turn when he won a long since defunct Champions Tour tournament in New Jersey in 2002 as a Monday qualifier. He enjoyed a nice run as a tour pro, but as his playing opportunities began to diminish, he returned to Georgia PGA events several years after turning 60.
Along with his wins in Georgia PGA points events and senior tournaments, Mason has been a frequent contender in events he did not win, and the likelihood is that he will continue to do, even after he turns 70 in about a year and a half.
Mason and his fellow Georgia PGA seniors are about to get another top player to their ranks, as Weinhart turned 50 the day after the Berkeley Hills tournament ended. He said his first foray into senior golf will be a trip to England later this month for an attempt to qualify for the British Senior Open.