The four semifinalists in the Georgia PGA Match Play Championship represented a broad age range, with three of the four in their mid-60s, mid-50s and mid-40s.
The fourth member of the quartet was 29-year-old Seth McCain, who stands out in a Georgia PGA Section where almost all the top players are in their 40s, 50s, or in the case of James Mason, his 60s.
McCain was also the lowest seeded of the four players who advanced to the semifinals at Peachtree Golf Club, entering the tournament as the No. 13 seed. The three other semifinalists were seeded 1 (Tim Weinhart), 2 (Sonny Skinner) and 3 (Mason).
Neither experience nor seeding had much of an impact in the final two rounds of the tournament, as McCain defeated the top two seeds in the semifinals and finals, both by scores of 1-up, to score his fourth victory in the Georgia PGA Section.
McCain, an assistant professional at Jennings Mill outside Athens, rallied from 1-down after 16 holes in the morning semifinals to defeat Weinhart 1-up, then won the 17th hole in the afternoon finals to win 1-up against Skinner, who trailed the entire match before pulling event after 16.
“It feels really cool to take down the top dogs in the Section,” said McCain, whose last victory came in the 2012 Atlanta Open, where he defeated Mason in a playoff at Chattahoochee GC. His two previous Georgia PGA victories came in consecutive tournaments at Chicopee Woods and Griffin CC in events that are no longer part of the Section’s schedule.
“I hit it fantastic in the morning match, but my putting was a little suspect,” McCain offered. “At 17 I was one down and made a good birdie putt. The one on 18 was hit and hope.”
Both McCain and Weinhart were above the hole on the severely sloping green, with both their birdie efforts featuring extreme breaks. Weinhart, who putted on a similar line, went first and watched his putt roll out well past the hole.
“Seeing his putt first helped,” McCain said. “I didn’t see a line. I just found a spot.”
McCain holed the slick, big-breaking putt to win the match, which McCain described as having “not too many birdies (at least until the last two holes), but not too many mistakes.”
According to McCain, a key to victory in the two matches was that “All day long, I hit my tee ball really well and hit my approach shots to spots where I had good runs at birdie and not have to worry about three-putts.”
While McCain had to battle to the last putt in his semifinal match, Skinner easily dispatched Mason 4&3 in the other semifinal.
Skinner jumped out to an early lead with three consecutive birdies and added a fourth birdie on the front nine to lead 4-up at the turn. Mason cut his deficit to 2-down before losing two holes to again fall 4-down, with Skinner closing out the match at the 15th.
Unlike the morning match, Skinner started slowly in the afternoon, while McCain continued his stellar play from the last two holes of his semifinal match.
McCain took the lead with a birdie at the par-5 second after Skinner snap-hooked his second shot into trees left of the green and barely got his third shot back in play, taking a bogey. McCain layed up on a hole he could have easily reached in two, and wedged his third within conceded birdie range.
Another birdie at the par-4 third put McCain 2-up after Skinner drove in the rough, missed the green and made bogey. Skinner again drove into trouble at the par-5 fifth, but extricated himself nicely and holed a 15-footer for birdie while McCain settled for par from a greenside bunker.
Skinner came up short with his tee shot at the par-3 sixth and lost the hole with a bogey from the front bunker, and again missed the green at the par-4 seventh for bogey, but got away with a halve when McCain three-putted from long range.
A second 15-foot birdie putt by Skinner at the par-4 ninth pulled him within 1-down at the turn, and both players birdied the par-5 10th. McCain earned a half with a beautiful bunker shot when Skinner missed his eagle attempt after an outstanding second.
Both players missed the green at the long, par-3 11th, with McCain going 2-up when he lagged his lengthy downhill putt from off the putting surface to with a few feet for a winning par.
Skinner again came right back with a superb approach to about five feet for a conceded birdie at the 12th against just McCain’s second bogey of the round. McCain returned the favor at the 13th, splitting the fairway with his tee shot and hitting his second within six feet for a birdie to again go ahead 2-up .
With another chance to go 3-up, McCain missed a 6-footer for birdie at the watery par-3 14th, and Skinner came right back with his fifth birdie of the round, hitting his approach within five feet for birdie after a sand save par by McCain.
Skinner pulled even for the first time since the first hole at the par-5 16th, carding a routine par after his drive found thick rough and he had to wedge out short of the hazard that crosses the fairway. McCain found a better lie in the rough on the opposite side of the fairway, but hit his second shot into a cross bunker short of the green, and sailed his third well over the green, leading to a bogey and a loss of the hole.
After fighting so hard to catch up, Skinner had a chance to go to the 18th hole all square, but missed a short par putt at the 17th. Both players had short but treacherous birdie putts at the 18th, with Skinner not playing enough break on his attempt. McCain barely touched his slippery 6-footer from above the hole, and had to make a comebacker of about half that length for the win.
Skinner, the head pro at Spring Hill in Tifton, was pleased with his play in both matches, but admitted to a little fatigue as the afternoon match wore on. The one shot he regretted was the par miss at the 17th, which resulted in his sixth bogey of the round. Skinner won the Georgia PGA Match Play Championship in his first year of eligibility in 2006, and has reached the semifinals three times since, including last year.
Weinhart, the Director of Instruction at Heritage Golf Links, has won the Match Play three times, including back-to-back wins in 2011 and ’12. He has lost twice in the finals and was a losing semifinalist for a fourth time and the second year in a row.
Mason, who played on the Champions Tour for more than a decade and plays out of the Orchard, was making his first appearance in the Match Play Championship since he began his Champions Tour career in 2002.
McCain also had to survive a pair of tight matches in the early rounds to reach the semifinals. He needed 20 holes in the first round to get past Justin Martin of Atlanta’s First Tee facility, and edged Gary Cressend of Augusta CC 1-up in the third round. Cressend knocked out fourth-seeded Matthew Evans of Rivermont in the second round, with fifth-seeded Bill Murchison of Towne Lake Hills losing in the third round to Chris Cartwright of West Pines. McCain defeated Cartwright 4&3 in the quarterfinals.
Winning the Match Play Championship “means a lot,” McCain said, and provided him with “a big confidence boost” going into the last two points events of the year – the Section Championship and national club professional championship qualifier.
McCain is third in the Player of the Year points standings behind Weinhart and Skinner, who have combined to win Player of the Year honors 10 times. McCain collected $1,500 for his victory, with Skinner taking home $1,000.