Mark Strickland turned 50 in March and made his introduction to senior golf earlier this week in extremely impressive fashion.
Strickland, one of the state’s top mid-amateurs over the past two decades, won the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open in his first attempt, running away from the field with a final round 65 Tuesday at St. Ives Country Club.
With a two-day total of 11-under 133, Strickland finished four strokes ahead of runner-up James Mason, a three-time winner of the event. He collected $700 in merchandise for his victory, the result of two days of exceptional play.
Strickland, a two-time GSGA Mid-Amateur champion in 2006 and ’11, shared the first round lead at 68 with Mason and St. Ives member Bob Royak, the tournament’s defending champion. Mason and Royak were among the earliest starters Monday morning, while Strickland teed off early that afternoon in the featured pairing among the p.m. starters.
Thanks to an eagle on the 18th hole, Strickland matched the 68s posted hours earlier by Mason and Royak, with Strickland’s playing partners Doug Hanzel and Brian Dixon both shooting 69s to share fourth place after the opening round.
Hanzel wound up third at 138, with Dixon fourth at 139. Royak tied for fifth at 140 along with former Georgia Senior Open champions Billy Mitchell and Sonny Skinner. Paul Claxton closed with a 68 and was eighth at 142.
While Royak had a sizeable group of St. Ives members pulling for him the final day, Strickland had the support of tournament sponsor Yamaha Golf-Car Company and its contingent in attendance. Strickland joined Yamaha as a Manager of the company’s golf car division early last year.
Strickland, a Woodstock resident, said he has enjoyed his association with Yamaha, but his playing schedule may be impacted by his job responsibilities. Because of a national Yamaha meeting in California next month, he will be unable to play in the Yamaha Atlanta Open at Pinetree CC, his home club.
Pinetree was the tournament host last year when Royak won in a playoff over Pinetree member Chris Hall, and for the second straight year a member of the host club came up a little short in an attempt to score a home course victory.
Royak, who also won the 2007 Yamaha Atlanta Open at the nearby Standard Club, recovered from a slow start in the opening round for a 68, playing his last 12 holes in 6-under. But he never seemed entirely comfortable the next day, and apart from a string of superb approach shots on holes 4, 5 and 6, did not play his best on his home course, settling for a 73.
Strickland said he had not played St. Ives since a qualifier “eight or nine years ago,” and was unable to work in a practice round before the tournament. He said he recalled that the outstanding Tom Fazio layout “fit his eye” when he played it almost a decade ago, and that was the case again this week.
While Strickland said he hasn’t played “too, too much golf” of late, he has gotten in enough practice time to stay sharp, and it showed in his two rounds at St. Ives.
For the tournament, Strickland said he hit all 36 greens in regulation, “something I never did before. I got some new irons last week and they felt great.”
Strickland’s opening 68 was mostly the result of his dominance of St. Ives’ par 5s. He birdied holes 3 and 7 to turn in 2-under, and added a third birdie on the short, par-4 13th. After settling for par on the par-5 14th, Strickland three-putted 17 for his only bogey of the tournament before closing out his day in fine style with an eagle at the 18th.
After making only one birdie on holes other than par 5s in the opening round, Strickland notched birdies on four par 4s the next day to go along with three more birdies on par 5s. He rolled in a nice birdie putt at the second to take the lead and seized control of the tournament with consecutive birdies at holes 5, 6 and 7.
Strickland hit it close for his birdies on the par-4 fifth and sixth holes, and hit a beautiful second shot on the par-5 seventh, but missed his eagle putt. The trio of birdies gave him a 2-shot margin over Hanzel, who briefly grabbed the lead with birdies on three of his first five holes. Hanzel, a Savannah doctor in his early 60s and one of the state’s most accomplished amateur players, managed only one birdie the rest of the day for a 69 and amateur runner-up honors in his initial appearance in the Georgia Senior Open.
When Hanzel, a three-time GSGA Senior champion and the winner of the 2013 USGA Senior Amateur, birdied the 13th, he closed to within one of the lead, but Strickland again stuffed his approach on the hole to near tap-in range. Hanzel’s chances ended when he left a shot in a greenside bunker at the par-5 14th for a bogey, and Strickland birdied the hole minutes later with another deadly accurate wedge shot to expand his lead to four.
Strickland closed out his final round 65 and 4-stroke victory in style when he almost holed his eagle attempt from just short of the green on the par-5 18th.
“That’s about as good as I can do,” said Strickland, whose 65 was his lowest competitive score since he shot a 64 on the Hooters Tour during his five-year stretch as a tour pro in the 1990s. Strickland also played in Asia and South America before giving up his pro career in 1995.
Strickland’s 65 could have been even lower, as he lipped out a short birdie putt on the par-5 third and failed to convert from close range after a superb tee shot on the perilous par-3 11th. He said he did not let thoughts of any of the failed opportunities linger, and with the quality of his ball striking, said he enjoyed two days of “stress-free golf.”
Mason claimed low pro honors and overall second place thanks a 4-under showing on the back nine for a second day 69. After squandering a number of excellent birdie chances on the front nine, Mason holed some putts on the back, including one from long range at the 12th and a another nice putt at the 18th to take second outright.
With his effort, Mason took home the first place professional prize of $2,100 in an event he won for the first time in 2001. He did not play in the Georgia Senior Open for more than a decade after winning a Champions Tour event as a Monday qualifier in 2002, and since his return, has won the event in 2015 and ’17.
Mason, a Dillard resident who plays out of the Orchard, will compete in the PGA Senior Championship at Oak Hill later this month.
Dixon, an instructor at Fox Creek, shot 69-70—139 to place second among the pros and fourth overall. He carded six birdies in the opening round, but that total was cut in half Tuesday, when he birdied just one of his last 12 holes.
Royak hung close early in the final round with birdies on holes 4 and 6 after excellent approach shots and an improbable bogey save at the fifth. After hitting his tee shot in a fairway bunker, he caught the lip on his escape attempt, and his ball ricocheted straight right into thick foliage. After taking a drop near the edge of the tree line, Royak hit his fourth shot on the green and holed the putt to avoid what could have been a very ugly number on his scorecard.
But not much went right for Royak after he birdied the sixth, and a double bogey at the short, par-4 13th following an errant drive that bounced off the cart path dropped him into a tie for fifth at 141 after a 73.
Mitchell, the 2016 Georgia Senior Open champion form Roswell, birdied five holes on the back nine Tuesday for a 70 and a 141 total.
Also tying for fifth was Skinner, a Sylvester resident who plays out of Spring Hill in Tifton and posted scores of 70-71. Skinner, who won the Georgia Senior Open in 2012, competed the previous week in the PGA Professional Championship against the country’s top club pros and placed among the top 60.
Claxton also competed in the club professional championship and tied for 33rd, two shots out of a top 20 finish that would have qualified him for the upcoming PGA Championship. Claxton, who was low pro and third overall in the Georgia Senior Open last year, shot 74 the first day with a double bogey on the opening hole, but came back the next day with a 68, closing out his round with back-to-back birdies at 17 and 18.
Amateurs Chad Branton, Jack Hall and Mark Nickerson tied for ninth at 144, with Branton closing with a 69. Amateur Curt Knorr shot 139 to win the Super Senior division by a stroke over Don Marsh, with Mike Schlueter of Bridge Mill low Super Senior pro at 144.
The tournament sported a field of more than 125 players.