The annual battle between Georgia’s strong groups of club professionals and amateurs continues May 6-7 at St. Ives CC in the Yamaha Georgia Senior Open.
Amateurs have won two of the last three Georgia Senior Opens, the first wins in the event by a non-pro since back-to-back amateur victories in 2007 and ’08.
Although the Georgia PGA includes a number of outstanding players over the age of 50, the favorite in the tournament will be defending champion Bob Royak, who will have a home course advantage. Royak, a member at St. Ives, won last year at Pinetree, defeating fellow amateur Chris Hall on the third playoff hole.
Royak carded 13 birdies in 39 holes on Pinetree’s demanding layout and swift greens last year, and has done well in the past competing against the pros, winning the Yamaha Atlanta Open in 2007 at the nearby Standard Club and tying for second in the Georgia Senior Open at the UGA course in 2014.
In last year’s Georgia Senior Open, Royak shot a pair of 71s for a 2-under 142 total, matching Hall who shot 73-69. After both players parred the par-5 ninth hole to start the playoff, they matched birdies on the ninth before riding their carts across the street to play the par-4 sixth. Earlier in the day, Royak hit his tee shot out of bounds on the sixth for a double bogey, but made a playoff birdie on the hole to capture the title.
Royak comes into the tournament off a win last week in the GSGA Senior Match Play Championship at Kinderlou Forest in Valdosta, where he defeated Savannah’s Jack Hall in the finals. Royak, an Alpharetta resident, and Jack Hall (no relation to Chris) were among the amateurs who had signed up for the Georgia Senior Open with a week left to register.
Also among the top amateurs who have already signed up for the tournament is Savannah’s Doug Hanzel, a past U.S. Senior Amateur champion who has won the GSGA Senior three times. Chris Hall edged out Hanzel to take the GSGA Senior last year, with Royak the 2017 champion. Hanzel, Royak and the two Halls have combined to win each of the last seven GSGA Senior titles.
Roswell’s Billy Mitchell won the Georgia Senior Open at Chattahoochee GC in 2016 and was a strong contender last year, tying for fourth. Bryan Hancock of Hoschton shared the lead with Mitchell midway through the final round last year before tying for sixth. Both are past winners of GSGA events.
Mike Combs of Roswell tied for third in 2017, also at Chattahoochee, and is in the field along with Rusty Strawn of McDonough, a top-10 finisher that year who was a quarterfinalist in the recent GSGA Senior Match Play. Strawn also tied for second along with Royak at the UGA course in the 2014 Georgia Senior Open.
The Georgia PGA contingent in the tournament features three former champions, who have combined for six Georgia Senior Open titles since 2011.
Craig Stevens, an instructor at Woodmont, won the event in 2011, ’13 and ’14, and has finishes of second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the other five years since 2011. He also has won the Georgia PGA Senior Championship twice.
Sonny Skinner, who plays out of Spring Hill in Tifton, won the Georgia Senior Open in 2012 and has claimed the Georgia PGA Senior title three times since 2010. He also has a pair of runner-up finishes in the Senior Open, most recently in 2017.
James Mason, who plays out of the Orchard, won the Georgia Senior Open for the first time in 2001 at the Orchard, but did not play in the tournament again for more than a decade after winning an event on the Champions Tour as a Monday qualifier in 2002. In the six years he has competed in the Georgia Senior Open in his 60s, he has won twice (2015 and ’17), placed second once and finished fourth on two other occasions, most recently last year
In his first year as a senior, Paul Claxton was low pro in the 2018 Georgia Senior Open and third overall, and won the Georgia PGA Senior in a playoff over Mason at Settindown Creek. Stevens and Skinner tied for third. Claxton, like Skinner a former tour pro who teaches at Brunswick CC, has also won the Georgia Open, the Georgia PGA Championship and the Section’s qualifier for the national club pro championship in the past two years.
St. Ives also hosted the Yamaha Atlanta Open in 2016, with Skinner winning in a playoff over two college players after posting a 7-under 137 total for 36 holes. Royak made a strong bid to win the tournament on his home course, finishing one shot out of the playoff at 138.
St. Ives head professional Billy Jack, who was among the leaders after the first round last year at Pinetree, is also in the field along with Tommy Brannen (Augusta Country Club), Brian Dixon (Fox Creek), Glen Herrell (Doublegate) and Brian Puterbaugh (Peachtree Golf Center).
For the Georgia Senior Open, St. Ives is expected to play around 6,650 yards, with almost all the holes utilizing the green tees, which are rated at 72.4/141. Holes 7 and 18, both par 5s, are likely to play from the back (gold) tees, adding another 70 yards to the tournament scorecard.
St. Ives is a Tom Fazio design that opened in the late 1980s and is among the best layouts in the Atlanta area’s lengthy list of quality private clubs. With the par 5s averaging just under 520 yards for the tournament and a trio of par 4s playing 360 or shorter, St. Ives will play about 350 yards shorter than its maximum distance.
For the most part, the main challenges at St. Ives are its greens complexes, with the smooth rolling Min-Verde Bermuda surfaces expected to be fast and firm for the tournament. The greens are on the expansive side, but there are several with potential pin positions in spots where there is minimal room to work with. A number of the putting surfaces are perched above the surrounding areas, which can make for some testy short game shots if you miss in the wrong spot.
With some exceptions, St. Ives is relatively generous off the tee, but there are enough holes, most of them on the back nine, that require a fair amount of accuracy. As you should expect from a Tom Fazio course, St. Ives features some well-positioned fairway bunkers, with a few holes including water hazards off the edges of one side to increase the need for precision.
The three short par 4s (Nos. 2, 12 and 13) all have trouble in play off the tee, as does the par-5 14th, which is part of a stretch of holes that offer several scoring chances along with some of the more dangerous shots on the course.
Both the par 3s on the back nine (11 and 15) require tee shots to carry ponds fronting the two greens, with the downhill 11th having some length at 200 yards. The wide, shallow green presents a challenge to hit, with surrounding bunkers at the 15th adding to the difficulty on that hole.
A creek protects the green on the short par-4 12th, with another creek in play on the risk/reward par-5 14th, both off the tee and left of the green.
The back nine closes with the longest par 4 on the course (No. 16), the relatively tight, tree-lined par-4 17th and a short-ish par-5 finishing hole that offers the possibility of some late heroics.
The front nine begins with an inviting, significantly downhill tee shot on the par-4 opening hole, with the nine sporting a pair of non-threatening par 3s of modest length, a par 5 that begins with a carry over a pond and sports a hazard left of the green, and one of the longer and stronger par 4s on the course to close out the nine.