Spencer Ball, a rising junior at Mercer, became the third college golfer to win the Yamaha Atlanta Open in the past six years, holding onto the lead throughout almost the entire final round with a display of quality golf under challenging conditions at Cherokee Town & Country Club.
Cherokee, one of the top private clubs in metro Atlanta, was in prime condition for the tournament, with its fast, sloping putting surfaces rolling at what was described as “championship speed” and frustrating almost the entire field, particularly the second day when they were dried out by sunshine and warm temperatures.
Ball finished with a 5-under 139 total to win by two strokes over Cherokee teaching pro Peter Jones, who took home first place money of $3,800 and also collected first place points to move into the top spot in the Georgia PGA Player of the Year rankings two tournaments into the 2018 season.
Ball opened with a 68 in more receptive conditions to trail Royal Lakes pro Luke James, who held the outright lead at 67. Ball and veteran Champions Tour player James Mason joined James in the final group of the second round, with both one shot off James’ lead.
They were the only players to break 70 Tuesday, with just two players shooting in the 60s in the second round. Ball shot a final round 71, carding one birdie early to take the lead after three holes and adding a second birdie on the short par-5 18th to lock up his victory.
Ball said the win was his first since his senior season at Lambert in Forsyth County, when he helped lead the Longhorns to a state championship in Georgia’s highest classification. He spent his freshman season in college playing at Armstrong in Savannah, but the school abandoned its sports programs after the 2016-17 school year when it merged with Georgia Southern.
As a freshman, Ball led Division II Armstrong in scoring and was second this past season in scoring average as a sophomore at Division I Mercer.
“This is my first and biggest win,” a smiling Ball said after his victory. “I’ve played in the tournament the past three years and they run it phenomenally. I couldn’t be happier.”
Ball’s opening 68 featured a strong showing on Cherokee’s PGA Tour-quality greens, as he needed just 27 putts and had seven birdies on his scorecard, including three of the tougher par 4s on the course and all four par 5s.
“I had never played this course before the practice round,” said Ball, who had played the adjacent South course previously but not Cherokee’s North course.
“I loved it,” he said of the North course. “A lot of the holes really fit my eye and the greens were unbelievable. They dried out and got a lot firmer today, but they were similar in speed. I spent a lot of time on the putting green the last two days, and hitting so many greens helped, because it took pressure off my short game.”
Ball left himself several difficult two-putts, but some excellent lag putting limited the number of testy par-savers he had to make.
James on the other hand struggled to hit greens in regulation early in the final round, and that cost him bogeys on three of the first six holes. Ball took the outright lead with a birdie at the third, splitting the fairway with a big drive and hitting his approach in the 12-foot range for his only birdie until he two-putted the 18th.
Ball’s only bogey came at the sixth, as all three players in the final group missed long on the tough-to-hold green and all made bogey. James recovered from his shaky start, which included a three-putt par at the par-5 fifth, running off 10 straight pars before finishing bogey-bogey to drop into a tie for fifth at 144 after a final round 77.
James, who also had seven birdies in his opening 67, could not take advantage of Cherokee’s par 5s, playing them in 1-over for the two days, including bogeys on the short 15th the first day and the shorter 18th the next afternoon.
In addition to his three-putt par the second round on the fifth after a beautiful fairway wood approach, James hit a superb second shot to the lengthy ninth that bounded through the green, and was just off the putting surface in two on the 15th, settling for pars on both before taking bogey on the closing hole. He did not make a birdie the entire second round.
Mason, who plays out of the Orchard in Clarkesville, won the Atlanta Open at White Columns in 2000, two years before he won a Champions Tour event as a Monday qualifier. He lost in a playoff the next year at the Legends at Chateau Elan and did not return to the tournament until 2012, when he again lost in a playoff at Chattahoochee GC.
At the age of 67, Mason is still among the most competitive players in the Georgia PGA Section, and played well enough tee to green at Cherokee to win the Atlanta Open for a second time, 18 years after his first. He shot 68 the first day with seven birdies, but was limited to two birdies the next day, both on tap-ins on par 5s.
Mason missed a pair of putts in the 3-foot range on the first two holes of the final round, the latter for birdie after a superb tee shot on the par-3 second. He birdied the par-5 ninth after a deft chip to get within two shots of Ball’s lead, and had a good look at birdie on the par-3 11th to close within one. But his birdie try slid just past the hole and he missed his par attempt from just outside tap-in range.
After a three-putt bogey on the par-3 14th, Mason had a last chance to challenge for the lead when he hit his second shot t the par-5 1th within eight feet. But his ticklish eagle try broke across the cup and missed, and Mason settled for a 75 and fourth place at 1-under 143.
Jones shot 71-70—141 to take low pro honors and place second overall. He picked up early birdies at holes 2 and 5 the final day, but fell back with bogeys at 6 and 8 before making a late move with birdies at the difficult par-3 14th and vulnerable par-5 15th. But a three-putt bogey at 17, his only three-putt of the day, proved costly and offset a birdie at the 18th, one of three he scored on the day on Cherokee’s par 5s.
“I played well today,” Jones said, with an exception being what he termed “a terrible tee ball” on the par-4 sixth, where he saved bogey with a 12-foot putt. He closed out his round in style, getting up-and-down at the 18th after his second shot rolled back 40 yards after landing on the front of the green.
Contending for victory on his home course “was really cool,” Jones said, but he admitted Cherokee “played way different than normal” under tournament conditions. “The greens were firm and the rough was up.”
Even though he did not win the tournament, Jones was happy about taking home the winner’s share of the purse and earning first place points.
“I’m really happy about the points,” said Jones, who is intent on earning Player of the Year honors in the Georgia Section after placing fourth last year, and stands in first place after his showing on his home course.
Taking third at 142 was multiple Cherokee club champion Tim Arnoult, who made a strong comeback the second day after beginning his round with a double bogey on the par-4 first, one of many holes that caused problems Wednesday thanks to the firmness of the greens and some testy pin positions.
Birdies at 5, 8, 9 and 13 pulled Arnault within one shot of the lead. But he missed a short par putt at the 14th and another putt from close range for birdie at 15. He shot 72 to finish second in the amateur division.
Tying James for fifth at 144 was 2011 Yamaha Atlanta open champion Craig Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, and Georgia College golfer Andrew Duffie of Evans. Stevens shot 72-72 while Duffie posted scores of 70-74.
Cherokee’s strong junior program produced two players who tied for eighth at 145 and two others who tied for 14th at 146.
Sam Lape, who led Westminster to the 2018 GHSA Class AAA title recently and also was the individual tournament champion, matched the low score of the second round (69) to tie for eighth. Also tying for eighth was Braden Jones, who came up through the Cherokee junior program and is a freshman at Georgia.
Also tying for eighth were two of the top players in the Georgia PGA – Heritage Golf Links Director of Instruction Tim Weinhart and veteran former tour pro Sonny Skinner, who plays out of Spring Hill in Tifton. Weinhart, a 9-time Section Player of the Year, shot 74-71 and Skinner, a member of the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and 2015 and ’16 Yamaha Atlanta Open champion, carded scores of 73-72. Also tying for eighth was Ringgold junior Gavin Noble and Maple Ridge pro Jake Keen.
Cherokee juniors Owen Burden and Matthew Giesler were among a group of eight amateurs tying for 14th at 146.
Matching Lape for the low score of the second round at 69 was Georgia Golf Center head pro Danny Elkins, who rebounded from an opening 80 that included a 7-hole stretch on the back nine he played in 8-over after being even par through 10 holes.
Elkins, one of the state’s most respected teaching pros, is the swing coach for tournament winner Ball, as well as Kennesaw State’s Jake Fendt, who shot 65 that day to take the first round lead in the Dogwood Invitational. Elkins also worked extensively with tour players Luke List and Roberto Castro as collegians as well as during their early years as pros.