In 20 years as a member of both the PGA and Web.com Tours, Paul Claxton played in exactly two major championships.
Almost three years after playing in his last tour event, Claxton will be competing in his third major – and first PGA Championship – after a strong showing in the PGA Professional Championship.
Claxton tied for third in the event that serves as the national championship for the PGA’s club professionals, earning him a spot in the PGA Championship, which will be played at Quail Hollow in Charlotte Aug. 10-13.
It will be his first start in a PGA Tour event since he qualified for the U.S. Open in 2012, his second career start in that tournament. During the four years he spent on the PGA Tour, Claxton never qualified for the PGA Championship, but made it into the field for this year’s event after competing in the national club pro championship for the first time.
Claxton left his career as a tour pro after the 2014 season on the Web.com Tour, and has been the Director of Golf at Hawk’s Point GC for the last two years in his home town of Vidalia. Claxton has played a handful of Georgia PGA events in that time, tying for third in last year’s Georgia Section qualifier for the PGA Professional Championship, which was played at the Bob Cupp-designed Sunriver Resort in Oregon.
For three rounds, Claxton hung close to the lead with scores of 70-70-74, and was tied for 10th at 1-under going to the final day, six strokes off the lead.
After six holes in the final round, Claxton was 1-over par for the day and getting uncomfortably close to the top 20 line that determines who qualifies for the PGA Championship.
At that point, things began to change for the 49-year-old Claxton, who was known as a steady, solid player in his 20-plus years as a tour pro and continued in that vein for the first 60 holes in Oregon.
Claxton matched seven birdies with seven bogeys during that stretch, but beginning with the par-5 seventh, ran off five consecutive birdies to take the outright lead.
“I was in the zone as they say,” Claxton said to PGA.com’s T.J. Auclair after his round. “Things were going pretty good. I hit some good shots, made some good putts.”
With two par 5s and a relatively short par-4 in that group of holes, Claxton said he was “in the scoring area of the golf course,” but the first of the par 5s measures 600 yards and the next two birdies came on a 220-yard par 3 and a 455-yard par 4.
“But then the wind got up and it played very tough coming in.”
Claxton drove in the rough on the difficult par-4 14th and tried to go at the green from what he described as “a flyer lie” with a rescue club and pulled his second shot into a hazard. He had to drop well back in the fairway, but saved bogey with a precise short iron shot to remain tied for the lead.
On the 15th, another 600-yard par 5, Claxton hit his third shot over the green but saved par with a a nice pitch before again missing the green at 16 and 18 and making bogey on both holes. The three bogeys coming in left Claxton with a 1-under 71 and a 2-under 285 total for the tournament, two shots out of a playoff that was won by fellow ex-tour pro Omar Uresti.
“It was fun to get back in the hunt and feel a little pressure,” Claxton said. “It lets me know I still have some work to do and that’s OK. “
Qualifying for the PGA Championship “was my goal coming out here, so I’m very pleased I was able to do that. I’ve never played in one, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Claxton was one of nine Georgia PGA members to compete in the PGA PC, with Tim Weinhart and Karen Paolozzi finishing T35 and T46 respectively and Sonny Skinner and Craig Stevens making the 36-hole cut but failing to survive the 54-hole cut.
Mark Anderson, Brian Dixon, Justin Martin and Jeff Frasier all missed the 36-hole cut, as did former Georgia PGA members Dave Bahr and Dave Engram, along with Johan Kok, who grew up in Peachtree City and works in the Tennessee Section. Jeff Jordan, another former Georgia PGA member, made the cut but finished well back in the pack.
Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links has qualified for the national club pro 17 times in the last 18 years and has made it to the PGA Championship on five occasions. He missed a top 20 finish by two shots in Oregon, posting scores of 70-73-76-73—292. He was in position after 36 holes, but carded six bogeys in the third round, three on par 5s.
Paolozzi, an assistant at Druid Hills GC, tied for seventh in the CPC last year, the highest finish ever in the event by a female. She shot 294 with scores of 72-72-75-75, finishing with 16 birdies, five on the first 10 holes of a wild final round. She had a chance for a top 20 finish with eight holes to go, but played them in 4-over after a double bogey on the par-5 11th. Through 12 holes she had five birdies, five bogeys, one double bogey and one par.
Veterans Skinner (222) and Stevens (223) missed making the 54-hole cut by two and three strokes respectively.
Claxton has been a notable part of the Georgia golf community since his college days in Athens, earning second and third team All-America honors his junior and senior seasons with the Bulldogs and winning five college tournaments. He enjoyed a successful amateur career, winning the Cardinal and Sunnehana titles as well as the Georgia Amateur at Athens CC after graduating from Georgia in 1992, and continued to win events at the mini-tour level after turning pro.
It didn’t take long for Claxton to move up to the Nike (now Web.com) Tour, and he placed 39th in earnings as a rookie in 1995, beginning a long and consistent run on the tour. He played it full time for 16 of the next 20 years, winning in 2001 in Louisiana and 2007 in suburban Washington, D.C. His highest finish on the money list came in 2007 (10th), the only time he advanced to the PGA Tour without a visit to Q school. Only once in his first 14 seasons did he finish lower than 61st, and his solid play year after year made him the first player in tour history to surpass $1 million in career earnings. He was second all-time at $1.8 million when he left the tour almost three years ago.
As competitive as he was on the Mike/Buy.com/Nationwide/Web.com Tour, Claxton could never break through in his four seasons on the PGA Tour. He was 177th in earnings in his rookie season of 1997 and could not crack the top 180 the next three times he competed on the tour.
Claxton will be playing the PGA Championship on a course that hosted a PGA Tour event when Claxton was a member in 2005 and ’08, but he did not get into the field either year. His only start at Quail Hollow came in 2009 as a Monday qualifier, but he did not make the cut.
“To be able to play in a major close to home, I’m excited about that,” Claxton said. “I need to work on my game a little but before I get to Quail Hollow.”
Claxton will have some decisions to make after he plays in the PGA Championship. He turns 50 next February and is eligible to attempt to qualify for the Champions Tour this fall. He enjoyed some success at Q-school during his tour days and will need a top-5 finish in Champions Tour qualifying if he hopes to resume his playing career.