Throughout the 1990s and most of the following decade, Stephen Keppler was accustomed to playing at the national level in PGA of America events.
Keppler competed in the PGA’s national club professional championship 13 times, making the cut on nine occasions and qualifying for four PGA Championships. He played respectably every time he teed it up against the game’s top players, missing by just one shot of making the cut in the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
But Keppler’s desire to compete began to wane after his appearance at the PGA Championship in what has been his home town since the mid-1980s, and he has made just a start or two in national PGA events over the past decade.
That will change this fall when Keppler will play in the PGA Senior Professional National Championship in south Florida Nov. 13-16.
Keppler won the 2014 Georgia PGA Senior Championship at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek to qualify for the Senior PNC. Keppler also qualified for the Senior PNC in 2012 and ’13, but due to a weather postponement and scheduling issues, did not compete in either event.
After not playing in a national PGA event since 2009, Keppler says he’s “excited” about the prospect of testing his game at a higher level, and says the PGA Senior PNC “is something to look forward to.”
Due to his job responsibilities as Director of Golf at Marietta Country Club and what he admits is a decline in his dedication to the necessities of competitive golf, Keppler’s playing schedule is not as full as it used to be.
But as he displayed in last month’s Georgia PGA Senior PNC, he is still one of Section’s best players at the age of 53.
Keppler fired back-to-back 3-under 69s on Settindown Creek’s demanding layout to win the qualifier by four strokes over Brunswick CC instructor Mark Anderson, who was the only other player in the field to break par for the tournament.
Craig Stevens, an instructor at Brookstone G&CC, was 3rd at 144, followed by veteran tour pro Sonny Skinner and Griffin GC head pro Charlie King at 146.
Stevens and Skinner were already exempt into the PGA Senior PNC, as was James Mason, who was competing in a Champions Tour tournament in Canada that ended the day before the Georgia PGA event began. Stevens tied for 6th and Mason was T12 in last year’s PGA Senior PNC, with Skinner earning his spot as the 2013 PGA Senior Player of the Year.
Also qualifying for the PGA Senior PNC were Winston Trively, the head pro at Crooked Oak in Colquitt, who was 6th at 147; Bent Tree head pro Russell Smith, 7th at 148; River Pines head pro Phil Wagoner, 8th at 150; and Cherokee Town & CC Director of Instruction Russ Davis, 9th at 152.
Keppler started the tournament with consecutive birdies at holes 2, 3 and 4. He was 5-under for the day after birdies at 15 and 16 before a double bogey on the 18th left him with a 69, one behind co-leaders Anderson and Laurel Springs head pro Chris Dare.
Anderson had six birdies in his opening round and survived a rocky start the next day, playing his final 12 holes in 1-under for a 74 after being 3-over after six. This will be his first appearance in the PGA Senior PNC.
Dare was 5-under after eight holes in the opening round and finished with a 68, but struggled from the outset the next day and shot 85 to finish in a 4-way tie for 9th at 153. Dare won the playoff for first alternate, and has a realistic chance of making it into the Senior PNC field.
Stevens made a run at 2nd place the final day, and was 3-under on the round after 10 holes before settling for a 71. Skinner, who has a pair of runner-up finishes in the PGA PNC in recent years and has also played well in both the PGA Senior PNC and Senior PGA Championship, also shot 71 the second round with three birdies on his last four holes.
Trively, who turned 50 last year, will be playing in a national club pro event for the first time after coming up just one shot short on more than one occasion in PGA PNC qualifiers. After shooting 1-under with only one bogey on his scorecard the first day, Trively followed with a 76, but easily advanced to nationals.
Smith closed with four birdies on the back nine the final round for a 72, the second straight year he shot par or better the second day at Settindown Creek to qualify for nationals. Smith’s 72 was the fourth lowest score of the final round.
Wagoner will be playing in the PGA Senior PNC for the first time, and last played in the PNC some 25 years ago. He carded six birdies, six pars and six bogeys in an opening round 72, but made triple bogey on the third hole the next day. He came back with pars on 11 of the next 12 holes and wound up with a 78 without a birdie on his scorecard.
“Anything I get playing is a surprise,” Wagoner said after qualifying. “Playing in our national championship is exciting. “
Davis was even more surprised to qualify than Wagoner. After a birdie the second day on the 16th, just his second birdie in two days, Davis was 6-over for the tournament and figured he was close to the cut line to advance.
After a double bogey on the 18th, Davis thought his chances were completely dashed, and put his clubs in the car and was about to head out before deciding to stick around a little longer. Several players behind him struggled even more the last day than Davis, who shot 77 and wound up with the last spot.
“I’m absolutely flabbergasted,” said Davis, who will be playing in the PGA Senior PNC for the sixth time in the last seven years.
Also involved in the playoff at 153 along with Dore were Willow Lake head pro Gregg Wolff, Ansley Director of Golf Phil Taylor and Green Island CC head pro Richard Korytoski.
While many of his fellow competitors were having problems with Settindown Creek’s demanding layout and testy greens complexes, Keppler began his second round birdie-birdie-birdie, with none of the three putts longer than five feet. He was even par the rest of the way, closing out his second straight 69 with a nice birdie putt at the pesky par-3 17th.
Keppler, who was coming off a tie for 2nd in the Georgia PGA Championship at Sea Island GC, is comfortable playing a more limited schedule, but might consider playing more if he was playing a little better.
“I haven’t been playing very well, but things felt a lot better in this one,” he said of his play at Settindown Creek. “It’s not like I can’t play more, I just don’t. I still have a competitive nature, but I’m not as dedicated as I once was.
“My golf game is not my number one priority now.”
When golf was at the top of his priority list throughout the 1990s, he was the best player among the state’s club professionals and one of the best in the country, earning Georgia PGA Player of the Year honors four straight years from 1993 to ’96.
Keppler won the Georgia Open in 1994 and ’95 (only two other Georgia PGA members have won it in the 20 years since); the Section Championship three times in seven years (he earned a fourth title in 2011); the Match Play Championship twice; and several other Georgia PGA tournaments, including one at Griffin CC when he played the last 10 holes of his first round in 10-under for a 62.
The only thing missing from Keppler’s Georgia PGA resume is a win in the Atlanta Open, an event in which he has come close to victory several times, most recently in 2013 when he lost in a playoff.
Keppler had three top 10s and two other top 20s in the PGA PNC, but made his biggest mark in the 1995 BellSouth Classic at Atlanta Country Club, when he finished 3rd, the best finish in a PGA Tour event by a club professional in the past 40 years.
Since turning 50, Keppler has won twice in Georgia PGA non-senior events and contended several other times, recently increasing his streak of top-3 finishes in the Section Championship to 10 straight years.
Keppler remains a first-rate ball striker, with his putting and short game his major concerns. He went back to a putter he used several years ago during the Section Championship at Sea Island GC and that aspect of his game improved, with Keppler pleased with the way he putted at Settindown Creek.
With the quality of his ball striking, if Keppler can putt as well as he did in the Georgia PGA Senior PNC, he could once again contend at nationals along with Skinner, Stevens and Mason, who have all played well in the Senior PNC.
“I don’t see why not,” Keppler says of the possibility of contending in that event. “They’re just as old as I am.”
Keppler is not known for his enthusiasm for practice sessions, but admits he may spend a little time before the PGA Senior PNC on one aspect of his game.
“I’m still struggling with my short game,” he said. “I’ve got to improve my chipping,”