Not all golf tournaments are won on the back nine on Sunday. Or the final round. Or even the weekend of a 72-hole event.
Jonathan Keppler effectively won the 2019 Georgia Amateur at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek during the second round, which was played Friday morning. He matched the low score of the tournament – a 6-under 66 – to take a 3-stroke lead after 36 holes.
After shooting 10-under 134 over the first two rounds on one of the state’s most demanding courses, Keppler was not as sharp the next two days, posting scores of 74 and 73. But with more difficult course set-ups than the players faced the first two days, Keppler never lost his lead.
Keppler remained ahead by two shots after 54 holes (third place was four off the lead), and wound up winning by three with a 7-under 281 total, the lowest winning score for the three Georgia Amateurs played at Settindown Creek.
Lee Knox shot 282 to score a narrow victory in 2012, and there are several parallels between Knox and Keppler, beginning with the fact that both are the sons of prominent names in Georgia golf.
Stephen Keppler is one of most successful and well known members of the Georgia PGA, making a name for himself outside the state when he almost won the 1995 PGA Tour BellSouth Classic.
Jeff Knox is a two-time GSGA Mid-Amateur champion and frequent contender in the Georgia Amateur, who has become something of a celebrity in international golf circles for his status as a playing marker in recent years for the final two rounds of the Masters.
Keppler and Knox continued the modern dominance by college golfers in the Georgia Amateur, with Keppler’s victory the eighth straight by golfers of college age or younger and 12thin the last 13 years. Both played their college golf outside the state, with Keppler competing on the golf team at Florida State and Knox playing at Alabama.
Neither player had particularly successful college golf careers, which is where the similarities end. Knox’s victory at Settindown Creek was his second Georgia Amateur title. Keppler’s triumph Sunday will almost certainly be his first and last in the event. He plans to turn pro later this year after making an attempt to qualify for the U.S. Amateur. Like his father, Knox remains an amateur.
Keppler would like to follow the path of the first player to win the Georgia Amateur at Settindown Creek. Harris English won in 2007 shortly before joining the Georgia golf team as a freshman, and has enjoyed a successful career on the PGA Tour with a pair of victories.
No player broke par of 288 for 72 holes when English won in 2007 with a 288 total. Keppler was one of just five players to finish under par at the conclusion of the 2019 Georgia Amateur after 17 players were in red figures after the first round and 11 were under par after 36 holes.
Keppler opened the tournament with a 68 to trail Georgia Tech signee Andy Mao, whose opening 66 gave him a one-shot lead over Mercer’s Spencer Ball, the 2018 Atlanta Open champion. Keppler was tied with Georgia Southern’s Ben Carr, the recent Southeaster Amateur champion; Hogan Ingram, the recent Georgia PGA Junior champion; UGA golfer Will Chandler, a previous contender in the Georgia Amateur; and Settindown Creek club champion Tim Schaetzel.
After a pair of early bogeys, Keppler was 1-over after five holes in his opening round, but five birdies in an 8-hole stretch, three of them on par 5s, got him to 4-under. He closed out his round with five straight pars to end the day behind only Mao and playing partner Ball.
Keppler took control of the tournament Friday morning, carding seven birdies in his 66, only one of them on a par 5. That gave him a 3-stroke lead over Carr, one of just a handful of players who contended out of the early Thursday/late Friday tee times half of the field. Carr was the only player other than Keppler to open with two rounds in the 60s, with Mao shooting 75 after being 1-under after seven holes and Ball managing just one birdie in his 73 after carding seven the day before.
Following his victory, Keppler said he “hit it pretty good Thursday and Friday and I putted extremely well Friday. Thursday and Friday I was looser and was able to go at more pins.”
His play the first two days gave him a lead he was able to preserve, even though his scores over the weekend (74-73) did not match the numbers he posted the first two days. Keppler bogeyed his first two holes Saturday, but was even par over his final 16.
Carr also started bogey-bogey Saturday and was able to trim one shot off Keppler’s lead on a day when only three players shot under par. The low score was a 70 by UGA freshman Nicolas Cassidy, a high school teammate of Mao’s at Johns Creek.
Holding the lead and playing a tougher golf course, Keppler said he was “not as aggressive going at pins” the final two days. “But I made enough good pars to hold on.”
The best of those pars came on the short par-3 seventh, part of a 3-hole stretch that clinched Keppler’s victory.
Carr closed within one shot of Keppler’s lead when he birdied the par-5 fourth hole, but Keppler responded with a superb approach at the lengthy par-4 sixth that resulted in a birdie putt of about six feet. Keppler, who missed on a pair of birdie opportunities earlier in the round, holed his downhill birdie try at the sixth to go back ahead by two, but his lead appeared to be in jeopardy after he flew the green with his tee shot at the seventh.
Facing a sharply uphill pitch from a thick lie in the rough with little green to work with, Keppler played a delicate bump-and-run up the shaved bank to a back pin, leaving only about five feet for a critical par save.
“That was one of the best up-and-downs I’ve ever made,” he said. “I was trying not to make 5 or 6, just make a 4.”
Keppler increased his lead to three when he rolled in a birdie putt in the 25-foot range at the eighth, but missed the green at the ninth and made bogey to make the turn two in front, exactly where he started the day.
Carr bogeyed the first three holes on the back nine, and despite a bogey on the 11th, Keppler’s lead doubled to four and stayed there the rest of the way. Schaetzel birdied the last four holes in succession to overtake Carr for second, matching the low round of the day with a 70 to finish at 4-under 284. Carr (76) was third at 286, with Ball (75) and Cassidy (74) tying for fifth at 287.
Chip Thompson, a member of the golf team at Coastal Georgia, matched Schaetzel’s 70 and was sixth at 288, posting three under-par rounds in the tournament. Taylor Smith closed with a pair of 71s and was seventh at 289, taking second behind Schaetzel among the mid-ams. UGA golfer Will Kahlstorf and mid-am Keith Guest tied for eighth at 290, with Mao shooting 77 Sunday to finish 10that 291.
“This is special,” Keppler said of his victory. ”I haven’t had the best amateur career. Everyone would tell me I had the game and the talent, and I was sick of not getting the results.”
Keppler credits visits to a sports psychologist and work with Atlanta Athletic Club instructor Chan Reeves for his recent successes, with Keppler’s father noting that his son’s improvement on the course is “well deserved. He’s really worked hard.”
Both Kepplers played their college golf at Florida State, and while Jonathan says he enjoyed his four years there, his results on the golf course were not what he was he was hoping for. After redshirting as a freshman, he was in and out of the starting lineup his next two seasons, recording a pair of top 10s in each. He played in only three events this past season, with his lone highlight coming in a non-collegiate tournament just before Christmas after he did not play at all competitively during the fall season.
Competing in the venerable Dixie Amateur in Coral Gables, Fla., Keppler scored a somewhat surprising victory, but that did carry over into the spring season, where he cracked the starting lineup for just one tournament. Although he had one year of eligibility remaining, when Keppler graduated recently, he decided not to use his final year, and is wrapping up his amateur career with an eye on his future as a pro.
Keppler has had some positive results since completing his college career, mostly in qualifiers prior to his win in the Georgia Amateur. He made it through local U.S. Open qualifying, shooting a 68 at Marietta CC, where his father is the long time Director of Golf, and shot 3-under in 36-hole sectional qualifying at Hawk’s Ridge but failed to advance.
While at the beach on vacation, he was contacted by a friend about playing in a qualifier for the Web.com tournament in Knoxville. Keppler arrived there expecting to play one round and go home, but again shot 68 to make it into the field, and had to drive back to his home in Marietta to gather his clothes for the week.
Competing in his first professional event, Keppler shot even par for 36 holes, missing the cut by three shots to due to one bad hole, a triple bogey on his 10thhole of the second round. He birdied the next two holes, but was unable to overcome his one serious mistake.
Keppler also attempted to qualify for a Web.com event in North Carolina, but came up just one shot short. In his only other full tournament start, he was 7-under after 54 holes in the Dogwood Invitational before suffering through a tough final round.
In his most recent qualifying attempt, Keppler competed in the British Amateur, an event in which his father played in several decades ago. Stephen Keppler is a native of England and played on the British Walker Cup team in 1983. In his effort to qualify for the amateur championship of his father’s home country, Jonathan recovered from a poor first round to shoot 68 the next day, one of the lowest scores in the event, but missed qualifying for match play by just a shot.
Keppler will attempt to qualify for the 2019 U.S. Amateur next week at Jennings Mill outside Athens, the host course of a former Web.com tournament. If he qualifies for the championship, which will be played at Pinehurst, he will close out his amateur career with August appearances in the Georgia Open at Ford Plantation outside Savannah and the U.S. Amateur one week later.
After that, it’s onto qualifying for the 2020 Korn Ferry Tour (the new name for the former Web.com Tour), with Keppler also considering European Tour qualifying, something his father also attempted before returning to the U.S. to join the club professional ranks following his time at Florida State.