By Mike Blum
Examine the list of winners in golf’s four major championships, and you’ll come across at least a few names that don’t really fit along side those of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino, Faldo, Els and Woods.
That pretty much applies to almost any professional tournament at the various levels at which the sport is conducted, almost being the operative word.
The Georgia PGA will hold its annual Section Championship this month, with the 2011 event marking its 50th anniversary. Sea Island GC will again host the E-Z-GO Georgia PGA Championship Aug. 29-31 on the famed Seaside course, which also hosts the PGA Tour McGladrey Classic.
Early winners include many of the most prominent club professionals in Georgia PGA history, including those of Hugh Royer, Jr., DeWitt Weaver, Jr., Davis Love, Jr., Jim Ferree, Wayne Yates and Paul Moran.
Beginning with the first of three titles by Gregg Wolff in 1985, the last quarter century’s roster of Section champions has included just about every elite club professional in the state.
Like Wolff, a 7-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year, Stephen Keppler and James Mason both won three times, and between them matched Wolff’s seven career Player of the Year titles.
While the Section’s top players continue to capture the Georgia PGA Championship, the event has taken a slightly different turn since Atlanta Athletic Club Director of Instruction Chan Reeves won back-to-back titles in 2002 and ’03.
Beginning with Reeves’ second victory, the tournament has had eight different winners the last eight years, with Reeves and 2010 champion Craig Stevens the only players to win the event for a second time during that span.
Since Reeves won in ’03, the Georgia PGA Championship winners have been Jeff Hull, Tim Weinhart, Greg Lee, Matt Peterson, Clark Spratlin, Sonny Skinner and Stevens, the seven most successful Georgia PGA tournament competitors during that span.
Those players will be shooting for a second or third Section Championship title, with Keppler hoping to end a drought of 14 years and win the event for a fourth time after repeated close calls since his third win in 1996.
The tournament returns to Seaside for the first time since 2008, with the Retreat course serving as host the last two years and four of the last seven. Spratlin and Weinhart won the last two times Seaside was the site, with Reeves going back-to-back in 2003 and ’04 before the course was renovated.
Stevens is the defending champion, winning last year on Retreat. He won the Section Championship at Seaside in 2001, edging out Reeves by one stroke the year before Reeves scored the first of his consecutive wins. Reeves turned the tables on Stevens the next year, one of three runner-up finishes in the event for Stevens, an instructor at Steel Canyon in Sandy Springs.
Since 2002, Stevens has four other finishes of 4th or better in the tournament, and will be playing in this month’s event just a few weeks after competing in the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. Stevens won the Atlanta Open earlier this year, as well as capturing the Georgia Senior Open title in his first year of senior eligibility.
Weinhart finished 2nd, 4th and 3rd in the three years prior to his victory at Seaside in ’05, but last year was the first time since then that he has seriously contended. He lost in a playoff to Reeves in 2002 and was two back of Hull in ’04 before winning in impressive fashion the next year by a 7-stroke margin.
So far this year, Weinhart has 2nd and 3rd place finishes in Section events, and is in contention for a seventh Player of the Year title. Weinhart is an instructor with the Nuclear Golf program that is based at the Standard Club.
Skinner won the rain-shortened Section Championship at Retreat in ’08, edging Stevens by one stroke. He was 3rd at Retreat in ’06, his first start in the event after playing on the PGA and Nationwide Tours since the early 1990s. Skinner, who teaches at River Pointe in Albany, has been one of the most consistent players in Section events over the past five years, turning in a string of top finishes, including a pair of runner-up showings in the PGA Professional National Championship. He comes into the Section Championship off a recent appearance in the U.S. Senior Open.
Spratlin was 3rd in the Section Championship in 1997 and 2000, but did not come close to victory again before winning by three strokes over Keppler in ’08 with a 6-under 204 total. He was 5th at Retreat last year. Spratlin, an instructor at Georgia Golf Center, won the Georgia PGA’s season opener this year at Chicopee Woods, and was a close 3rd in the Atlanta Open.
Peterson won on the Plantation course in 2007, the only time the event was played on Seaside’s neighboring layout. He made a strong run at victory the next year at Seaside, placing 3rd. Peterson, the head professional at the UGA course in Athens, spent most of his career in golf playing on the Nationwide Tour for over a decade. Along with Weinhart, he has won all four of the Georgia PGA’s majors, taking the Georgia Open in the early 1990s as a young mini-tour player. He has won both the Atlanta Open and Match Play Championship in recent years, but has played an increasingly limited schedule of late.
Lee captured his Section Championship title at Retreat in ’06, finishing one shot ahead of Keppler. He came up one shot short of a playoff in ’04, but has been in the top 10 just once since his victory, tying for 6th in the 36-hole tournament in ’09. Lee, an assistant at Chicopee Woods, has won three of the Section’s four majors, with his last victory coming in the Match Play Championship in 2007.
Hull finished one shot ahead of Lee in 2004, one of six times he’s finished 6th or better in the championship. He was second by a stroke behind long-time Sea Island GC instructor Mike Cook in 1998 and was four in back of Stevens in a tie for 3rd last year. Hull, an instructor at the UGA course, is one of just two Georgia PGA members to win the Georgia Open since the mid-1990s, and nearly added the recent Championship at Berkeley Hills to his list of victories, losing on the seventh playoff hole.
It’s been 14 years since Keppler last won the Section Championship, but it hasn’t been for lack of effort. Since his third win in ’96, Keppler has finished 2nd four times, all in consecutive years from 2005-08, and has placed 3rd three times, including each of the last two years. Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, has not finished lower than 3rd since ’05, but has not been able to add to his total of 12 Section titles, seven of them majors, since his last win in 2004.
The two biggest threats to claim their first Section Championship are Towne Lake Hills assistant Bill Murchison, who won the recent Georgia PGA event at Berkeley Hills, and Country Club of the South Director of Instruction Shawn Koch, who has captured two majors among his three Section titles. Koch has finishes of 4th and 6th in the event since 2007.