Stadion Classic already making its mark
The Stadion Classic at UGA returns to Athens after a successful debut last year, with another strong field expected for what is becoming one of the top events on the Nationwide Tour.
This year’s tournament will be played May 5-8, the week after the Nationwide Tour makes its annual stop in Valdosta for the South Georgia Classic.
From 2006-09, the tournament was played at nearby Jennings Mill Country Club under the title sponsorship of the Athens Regional Foundation. It moved to the University of Georgia course last year, with money management firm Stadion taking over the title sponsorship role.
The event was well-received by the players, who praised both the quality of the renovated UGA layout and the course conditions, which were pristine for tournament week.
As expected, the UGA course gave the players a battle. Only three players finished the week in double figures under par, with 12-under 272 the winning score. Some weeks on the Nationwide Tour, 4-under par barely makes the cut. In Athens last year, 4-under par was good enough to tie for 10th place, with the tournament one of the few on tour where the cut line was over par.
The UGA course, which plays to a par 71 after the renovations several years ago by Davis Love’s design firm, measures a healthy 7,240 yards, with seven of the 11 par 4s averaging just over 460.
Although it ranked as one of the tougher courses the Nationwide Tour visited in 2010, the Robert Trent Jones-designed layout still yielded a sizeable number of low scores daily. Three players shot 66 in the first round, former UGA golfer Kevin Kisner recorded a 65 the next day and a pair of 64s were posted on the weekend, including one in the third round by eventual winner Martin Piller.
Kisner, Piller and runner-up Daniel Summerhays all finished among the tour’s 25 leading money winners last year, but there’s a good chance at least two of them will not get into the field for the PGA Tour event that week.
The Stadion Classic at UGA is being played the same week as the PGA Tour stop at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, which draws one of that tour’s strongest fields. A number of players with PGA Tour status will not get into the field in Charlotte. With the Players Championship and the Colonial Invitation the next two weeks, those players are looking at the possibility of three straight tournaments in which they will be unable to play.
Last year’s Nationwide event in Athens was also played opposite the Quail Hollow tournament, and as a result, a number of veterans with names familiar to golf fans teed it up at the UGA course.
Among those who played in Athens last year were former PGA Tour winners Jonathan Kaye, Steve Pate, Robert Gamez, Mark Hensby, Glen Day, Frank Lickliter, Joe Durant and Jason Gore. Stephen Leaney and Bob May, who both nearly won major championships, also played, as did Mark Brooks, a former PGA champion, and Arjun Atwal, who went on to win a PGA Tour event later in 2010.
Of that group, Atwal and Kaye posted the strongest showings, tying for 10th at 4-under 280, eight strokes behind Piller’s winning total.
Most of the names at the top of the final leader board were unfamiliar to the fans who attended last year’s event in Athens, with none of the four primary contenders having any PGA Tour experience.
Piller was in just his second season on the Nationwide Tour after graduating from Texas A&M in 2008. He played well as a rookie in ’09 and did even better last year to earn a spot on the PGA Tour. He moved into contention in Athens with a third round 64, and despite managing just one birdie in a final round 71, came from one shot behind after 54 holes to win when Summerhays bogeyed two of the final three holes to close with a 73.
Both players went on to more success later in the season, with Piller winning in Omaha and Summerhays taking 4th on the money list thanks to two more runner-up finishes and a total of five tournaments in which he placed 4th or better.
The other two contenders were British native Gary Christian, a former Auburn golfer and the lone veteran of the group, and New Zealand’s Bradley Iles. Christian nearly made up an 8-stroke deficit after 54 holes, firing a 66 to finish two off the lead at 274. Iles was in the thick of the battle until he double-bogeyed the par-3 16th and ended up fourth at 275 after a 73.
Kisner’s tie for 10th was the best finish by the seven current or former UGA golfers in the field. He won the Nationwide tournament later in the season in Pittsburgh and finished the year 11th in earnings.
Chris Kirk, Kisner’s teammate on Georgia’s NCAA Championship team in 2005, was in contention for a top-10 finish, but suffered through a poor final nine and wound up tied for 34th at 283. Kirk scored the first of his two 2010 victories six weeks later in Arkansas, and went on to finish 2nd on the money list. He is off to a strong start on the PGA Tour this year, and will likely be competing that week in Charlotte.
Tournament officials awarded two of their sponsor exemptions to the top two players on last year’s UGA golf team, and both acquitted themselves commendably. Harris English opened with a 68 and finished the tournament at 2-under 282, tying for 27th. Teammate Russell Henley almost caught English the final day, firing a 67 to tie to for 34th at 283.
The two again earned the sponsor exemptions for the two UGA spots in the field for this year’s event.
Brian Harman, a former teammate of Henley and English who was playing in his first season as a professional, made it into the field in a Monday qualifier and tied for 18th at 281, highlighted by a third round 66. Harman, who enjoyed a successful rookie season as a pro playing primarily on the eGolf Tour, will likely have to go through Monday qualifying again this year.
Harman made it into the field in Valdosta, joining Augusta’s Scott Parel, a former Nationwide Tour player as a successful Monday qualifier.
The Stadion UGA Classic’s two Monday qualifiers will be played at Jennings Mill and Achasta GC, with seven players advancing from each site. Three Georgia PGA members also earned spots in the field – Craig Stevens, Tim Weinhart and Matthew Evans.
Among the Georgia PGA members who made it into the field last year was UGA head professional Matt Peterson, a long-time player on the Nationwide Tour who played his college golf in Athens. Peterson did not attempt to qualify for the event this year.
One of Peterson’s teammates in the late 1980s was Paul Claxton, who is in his 13th season on the Nationwide Tour. Claxton has played full time on either the Nationwide or PGA Tour since 1995, and is among the all-time leading money winners on the Nationwide Tour.
Other ex-Bulldogs on the Nationwide Tour include Justin Bolli and Brendon Todd, who have both played on the PGA Tour and have won on the Nationwide Tour, and Erik Compton, who has enjoyed some success in infrequent PGA Tour starts. A 4th place finish in the Nationwide season-opener in Panama will likely earn Compton a spot in the field, with Bolli and Todd among the leading candidates for sponsor exemptions, if needed.
Recent Georgia Tech standout Roberto Castro of Alpharetta, Luke List of Ringgold and veteran Scott Dunlap of Duluth are among other Georgians on the Nationwide Tour. The tour’s non-exempt players will be “re-shuffled” after the previous week’s tournament in Valdosta, which will leave the field for the Stadion Classic at UGA up in the air until after the South Georgia Classic.
Tournament week includes pro-ams on Monday and Wednesday, a UGA student/junior clinic on Monday and a Tuesday morning breakfast and clinic at Athens CC with co-chairs Bubba Watson and Chip Beck, both ex-Bulldog golfers.
For information, visit the tournament web site at www.stadionclassic.uga.edu.
By Mike Blum