The Georgia PGA wraps up its 2019 season for individual events with the PGA Professional Championship, which will be played Oct. 14-15 at Jennings Mill outside Athens.
The tournament serves as the Section’s qualifier for the 2020 PGA Professional Championship, the national championship for the country’s club professionals. That event is scheduled for April 26-29 at the Barton Creek Resort in Austin, Tex., with the top 20 finishers qualifying for the 2020 PGA Championship the following month at Harding Park in San Francisco.
The field at Jennings Mill will compete for six spots at nationals, with several of the Georgia PGA’s most accomplished veteran players having compiled records of success in the event.
Tim Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, has qualified for nationals 18 times in the last 20 years, missing out for just the second time in 2018 at the Barnsley Resort. Weinhart, a 9-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year and a 5-time winner of the national qualifier, had a 15-year streak of qualifying snapped in 2014. His last win in the event came in 2016 at Reynolds Lake Oconee.
Craig Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, has qualified for nationals 20 times dating back to the mid-1990s, missing out on only a handful of occasions, two of them in the last five years. Stevens, a 4-time Player of the Year, won the GPGA Professional Championship three times between 2001 and 2010.
Former tour player Sonny Skinner has qualified for the PGA Professional Championship every year but one since he became eligible in 2006, with his only unsuccessful attempt coming in 2015. Although Skinner has never won the qualifier, he has placed second, third and fourth three times apiece over the past 13 years, placing second, fourth and third in 2016, ’17 and ’18. Skinner, who plays out of Spring Hill in Tifton, has won Player of the Year honors twice, most recently in 2014, and is in a strong position to claim the title for a third time this year.
Kyle Owen of Dunwoody CC is the defending champion, winning last year at the Barnsley Resort. He shot 1-under 143 in difficult conditions to win by a shot. Owen, the 2017 Player of the Year, has qualified for nationals five times since 2011, with four top-4 finishers.
Paul Claxton, like Skinner a former tour player with a combined 20 years on the PGA Tour and what is now the KF Tour, first became eligible to compete in the event in 2016. He has placed third, first and second the last three years, winning in a playoff in 2017 at Champions Retreat outside Augusta. Claxton nearly won the national club professional championship in ‘17, finishing in a tie for third. Claxton was the Georgia PGA’s Player of the Year in 2018.
Claxton has already qualified for nationals thanks to his recent victory in the Georgia PGA Championship at Sea Island Golf Club’s Retreat course. He will not count against the Section’s allotment of six qualifiers if he finishes among the top six at Jennings Mill, and will be competing for Player of the Year points and money. His winner’s share of the purse in 2017 was $4,000.
Also qualifying for nationals last year was Augusta National assistant Robby Bruns, Cartersville CC head pro Bill Hassell and Oak Mountain head pro Matthew Sanders, who captured the final qualifying spot in a playoff. Hassell lost in a playoff for the final spot the previous year at Champions Retreat while Sanders has been involved in a playoff each of the last three years. He lost in a multi-player playoff for the final spot at the Oconee course in 2016, lost to Claxton after the two tied for first the next year and won a playoff over Capital City Club assistant J.P. Griffin in 2018.
Other recent qualifiers for nationals include Cherokee Town & CC Director of Instruction Peter Jones and Bobby Jones GC instructor Justin Martin in 2017, with Martin also qualifying in 2016 along with Reunion instructor Jeff Frasier , Brunswick CC instructor Mark Anderson and former Druid Hills assistant Karen Paolozzi, who has since left the golf industry.
Paolozzi, who was one of the country’s top female players in the club professional ranks, won the qualifier in 2015 at Dunwoody CC with Anderson taking second and Weinhart third. Also qualifying that year was Peachtree Golf Center instructor Brian Puterbaugh, who won the event in 1999 at Cuscowilla and was second at the Legends at Chateau Elan in 2014, along with Highland CC head pro Todd Ormsby, who won at Champions Retreat in 2013.
Phil Taylor, the Director of Golf at Ansley GC, won at the Legends in 2014, with Weinhart winning back to back at Settindown Creek in 2011 and the Standard Club the next year.
Skinner leads the Player of the Year points list with two events remaining on the schedule, and will expand his lead after the Sept. 30 completion of the Match Play Championship. Skinner is the only player in the top 10 who made it as far as the semifinals, and could take an insurmountable lead if he wins his two matches at Peachtree GC that day.
Weinhart, who is second on the points list, lost in the opening round of the Match Play Championship, and Claxton, who is fourth in the standings, did not play in the event.
Jennings Mill hosted a tournament on the Nationwide (now KF) Tour from 2006 to 2009, and was among the tougher tests on the tour during that time. The course measures just over 7,000 yards from the tips, and will play almost its full length for the tournament, with two of its three longest par 4s not scheduled to play their maximum length.
The course was designed by Atlanta-based architect Bob Cupp, whose best known creations in the state included Settindown Creek, Hawk’s Ridge, Marietta CC, Savannah Harbor and the original Plantation course plus Reynolds Landing (formerly Port Armor) at Reynolds Lake Oconee.
In addition to the Nationwide Tour, Jennings Mill has hosted PGA Tour q-school tournaments, as well as Georgia PGA and GSGA events.
Cupp’s design tests every aspect of the game, with plenty of out of bounds takes and encroaching tree lines placing a premium on accuracy off the tee. With four very strong par 4s, length off the tee is a vital asset, but there are also several short-ish par 4s, most notably the drivable but risk/reward third hole.
With some exceptions, the greens are not especially large, with most of them having modest tiers and ridges to make things interesting once you reach the excellent putting surfaces, Overall, the course is in perhaps the best conditions it’s been in since the Nationwide Tour relocated a decade ago to the UGA course.
The greens, which were replaced about four years, are in particularly prime condition, with many of the areas around them featuring closely cut grass that will provide several short game options.
There are not many soft touches on Cupp’s thoughtful layout, but some quality wedge shots can produce birdie opportunities on the short par 4s that begin the two nines, along with the risk/reward third. The remainder of the par 4s are on the stout side, among them the lengthy, perilous seventh and a quartet of par 5s on the back nine that make for e demanding finish once you get past the two relatively inviting holes that start the incoming nine,
The 11th is one of two par 5s that should be reachable with accurate tee shots, but finding the fairway is a particular challenge on the dogleg left fifth. A hazard short of the par-5 16th, which also begins with a tight tee shot, makes it more of a three-shot hole, while the quirky ninth and its island fairway and pinched lay-up area has the potential for wrecking a round with a miss-played shot or two.
The 200-yard par-3 12th begins Jennings Mill’s strong string of holes down the stretch, with the remaining par 3s including the short eighth, one of the better scoring opportunities on a course where scoring opportunities are not plentiful.
NEW EVENT DEBUTS: The Georgia PGA will play a new event to its schedule Oct. 7, with the GPGA Head Professional Championship at Cartersville CC.
The one-day tournament will be limited to head professionals at the state’s courses and practice facilities and will be held under a Stableford scoring format that offers four points for eagles, three for birdies, two for pars and one for bogeys.
Since Stephen Keppler, then the head pro at Summit Chase in Snellville, won GPGA Player of the Year honors four straight times from 1993-1996, only two head pros have claimed that honor – former tour player Matt Peterson (UGA golf course) in 2008 and Kyle Owen (Dunwoody CC) in 2017.
The other Player of Year winners since ’94 – James Mason, Craig Stevens, Tim Weinhart, Sonny Skinner, Jeff Hull and Paul Claxton – were either instructors or fit into some other non-head pro category. Only a relative handful of head pros –among them Donn Perno, Clark Spratlin, Phil Taylor, Todd Ormsby and Hank Smith – have been tournament winners as head pros over the past two decades.
This event will give the state’s head pros, who don’t have the work flexibility of instructors, to compete against those in similar situations.
The tournament will be held at Cartersville CC, a long time popular host site for Georgia PGA and GSGA events.