After opening with a 7-under 65 to take the lead in the inaugural Milton Martin Honda Classic at Gainesville’s Chattahoochee GC earlier this week, Paul Claxton appeared to be in position to roll to a third straight victory in a Georgia PGA event.
As it turned out, Claxton won his third consecutive Georgia PGA tournament, but the victory did not come easily, as Chattahoochee played considerably differently in the final round than it did the previous day.
Scores were low the first day, with two 66s in addition to Claxton’s 65 and a total of 14 rounds in the 60s. The low score the next day was 69, with only two players breaking 70. The weather conditions were similar both days, but a different group of pin positions greatly enhanced the challenge presented by Chattahoochee’s frequently deceptive putting surfaces, which frustrated the entire field in the second round.
Claxton followed his 65 with a 71 for an 8-under 136 total and a one-stroke victory over Georgia State golfer Nathan Williams, who was playing on his home course. Williams, a rising senior, matched Claxton’s 71 in the final round after opening with a 66. Kyle Owen, the 2017 Georgia PGA Player of the year, was third at 138 after posting one of the two 69s the final day, with four Georgia PGA members tying for fourth at 139 and five others tying for eighth at 140.
From 1995-2014, Claxton was a member of either the PGA or Web.com Tour, playing 16 seasons in that span on the Web.com and four on the PGA Tour. He was the first player to reach $1 million in career earnings on the Web.com, and remains third on the career money list.
Claxton began playing in Georgia PGA events in 2016 after taking the job of head pro at Hawk’s Point in his hometown of Vidalia. Claxton attempted to help save the struggling small town club, but his efforts were not enough to keep it from closing last year, leaving Claxton free to play a heavier tournament schedule.
His 2017 schedule began with a tie for third in the PGA Professional Championship, the national championship for the country’s club professionals. That qualified him for the PGA Championship for the first time, and he competed at Quail Hollow in Charlotte a week after winning the Georgia Open at Savannah’s Ford Plantation.
In his next Georgia PGA start, Claxton won the Section’s Professional Championship, which also serves as a qualifier for the 2018 national club pro championship. The Milton Martin Honda Classic was the first points event on the 2018 Georgia PGA schedule, with Claxton winning in his third straight start.
Earlier this year, Claxton turned 50 and has been competing in Monday qualifiers on the Champions Tour, playing his way into two events and earning a spot in the upcoming PGA Senior Championship. He has also started playing in senior events in the state, but has enjoyed less success competing against players closer to his own age. He tied for seventh in a Senior Division tournament earlier this year at Doublegate in Albany and placed third in last week’s Georgia Senior Open behind a pair of amateurs.
In the final round of the Milton Martin Honda Classic in Gainesville, Claxton was paired in the final round with Williams, who recently competed his junior season with the Panthers and is about 30 years younger than Claxton.
Both players carded seven birdies in their opening rounds, with Claxton playing bogey-free golf and Williams taking one lone bogey. Claxton birdied three of the four par 5s that day, while Williams notched a trio of 2s on his scorecard with birdies on all but one of the par 3s.
The two were paired in the final round with Georgia PGA member Bill Murchison, an instructor at Towne Lake Hills who opened with a 66. But after the trio combined for 19 birdies and a hole-in-one by Murchison on the par-3 fifth the first day, they all were over par on the front nine the next day, resulting in a bunched leader board with a sizeable number of players in contention for the victory.
Claxton went out in 2-over 38 to drop to 5-under along with Williams and Murchison. As a result, they were overtaken by Highland CC Director of Golf Todd Ormsby and Standard Club head pro Chris Shircliff. Ormsby took the lead at 7-under with his fourth birdie of the day at par-4 11th, breaking a tie with Shircliff, who turned in 3-under.
But the two managed just one birdie between them the rest of the day, with Shircliff taking bogey at the 18th to finish in a tie for fourth at 5-under after a 70. Ormsby double-bogeyed the finishing hole following an errant tee shot for a 71 and a tie for eighth at 4-under.
While Murchison fell out of contention with four bogeys on the back nine, Claxton and Williams both rebounded after shooting over par on the front nine. Williams three-putted three of his first five holes for bogeys, but was 4-under the rest of way, scoring all four of his birdies on Chattahoochee’s par 5s.
Claxton had a 3-putt of his own for bogey on the fourth, and fell to 2-over for the day when he took four to get down from a tough spot just off the green on the par-5 eighth. Birdies at 11 and 14 after a pair of quality approach shots gave Claxton the lead at 7-under. But Williams matched him when he reached the par-5 13th in two and hit a deft chip after just missing the green with his second shot on the long 15th.
The two were tied going to the 16th, but Claxton again hit his approach shot within birdie range and holed the putt, preserving his slim lead with an excellent lag putt on the 17th and a fairway and middle of the green par on the finishing hole.
“I played good at first,” Claxton said. “But I didn’t make any putts and then I hit a couple of shots that were not perfect. I hit all the greens but one, but the greens were a little trickier to read today and the pins were a little tougher. I was putting uphill into the grain all day and that’s tough.
“I was real pleased with the way I played. I stayed cool and relaxed and kept hitting the ball good.”
Claxton is currently on a break from the Champions Tour, as there is a two-month gap in Monday qualifiers from last month’s event at TPC Sugarloaf to an event in Des Moines in early June. Claxton has qualified for the Senior PGA in Michigan later this month, and will attempt to qualify for the Senior U.S. Open in Colorado in late June.
During his entire 20-year career on the Web.com and PGA Tours, Claxton was an exempt player and rarely had to Monday qualify on either tour.
He said having to qualify on a regular basis on the Champions Tour “is tough. You can’t make any plans. You come into town on Saturday, play a practice round on Sunday, then you’re either happy on Monday or back in your car on a plane. It’s a tough road. You never know where you’re going to be.”
Claxton played his way into tournaments in March in Tucson and Biloxi, and finished in the middle of the pack in both. All six of Claxton’s scores have been between 70 and 73, which will make you close to $10,000 a tournament, but will not get you close to the a big check that could improve his status on the tour.
In addition to his playing schedule, Claxton has been doing some teaching at Brunswick CC, working with some of the club’s members and juniors.
Claxton’s main opposition in his victory came from a player who calls Chattahoochee his home course, but had not played there since Christmas break.
Williams said he plays his home course only on breaks during the school year, but even though it has been some time since he played there, he still retains the home course knowledge that helped him to beat all but one player in the field of the Milton Martin Honda Classic.
“It’s awesome,” he said of playing an event on his home course. “It helps you stay relaxed because you know what spots to hit it.”
After an outstanding opening round, Williams ran into the same problems on Chattahoochee’s greens the next day that frustrated the rest of the players in the field. He left himself some lengthy birdie putts early in the round and three-putted three times, missing a trio of par putts in the 4-to-5-foot range.
Only two of Williams’ seven birdies the first day came on Chattahoochee’s par 5s, but he went 4-for-4 the next day, helping to compensate for no birdies on the par 3s or 4s. Other than a few excellent second shots into par 5s, Williams admitted he did not play his best thefinal day, with one of his par-5 birdies coming after a pulled tee shot into the trees and a punch out second.
Williams said making the switch from competing as part of a team in college golf to the individual nature of the Georgia PGA event was “different. In college, you play for the team and there is a greater purpose to your play.”
The second place finish – first among the amateurs in the field – was a welcome showing for Williams, who said he “wanted to win, but this is OK. I didn’t have my best today, but that’s just golf.”
Owen, the head pro at Dunwoody CC, began his defense of Player of the Year honors with a pair of 69s for a 6-under 138 total.. A birdie at the 18th enabled him to break out of a logjam and take third outright.
Tying for fourth at 139 along with Shircliff was veteran former tour player James Mason (69-70), who had won two previous Georgia PGA events hosted by Chattahoochee, Cherokee Town & CC head pro Peter Jones (68-71) and First Tee of Atlanta Director of Golf Justin Martin (68-71). Jones got to 6-under for the tournament after six holes in the final round, but managed just one birdie the rest of the day. Martin bogeyed the 18th after birdies at 16 and 17 got him to 6-under and within one of Claxton’s lead at the time.
Tying for eighth at 140 along with Ormsby was Luke James (70-70) of nearby Riyal Lakes, J.P. Griffin (69-71) of Capital City Club, Michael Parrott (69-71) of Brookfield and Tim Weinhart (67-73) of Heritage Golf Links. Weinhart, who played in the next to last group with Jones and Martin, bogeyed the first two holes and after a birdie at the fourth, parred the last 14 holes in succession.
The only other player to break 70 the second day was 2017 GSGA Junior champion Brandon Cho of Suwanee, who was 13th overall and second among the amateurs at 72-69—141.
The tournament was supported by Srixon.