Six Georgia PGA members will be among 312 of the country’s top club professionals who will compete in the 52nd PGA Professional Championship, which will be played April 28-May 1 at Belfair in Bluffton, S.C.
The tournament is a relative home game for the Georgia PGA contingent, with recent national club pro championships played on the West Coast and the Northeast. The last time South Carolina hosted the event was at Myrtle Beach in 2014. Belfair is located just off Hilton Head Island, a short drive from Savannah.
The players will compete for a purse of $550,000, with the top 20 finishers earning spots in next month’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. The field will be cut to the low 90 and ties after 36 holes and the low 70 and ties after 54.
Belfair’s East and West courses will host the PGA Professional Championship, with the Tom Fazio-designed West Course the site for the final two rounds. The two courses feature contrasting layouts, with the par-72 parkland-style West Course measuring around 7,100 yards and the par-71, 6,900-yard East Course more of a links design in a low country setting. All four rounds will be televised live on the Golf Channel.
The veteran of the Georgia PGA contingent is Sonny Skinner, one of the two golfers from Georgia with experience on the PGA, Web.com and Champions Tours. Skinner, who lives in Sylvester in southwest Georgia and plays out of Spring Hill in Tifton, has qualified for nationals every year but one since becoming eligible to compete in the tournament in 2006.
Skinner placed second in the PGA Professional Championship in both 2008 and 2010, the latter time at Reynolds Plantation’s Great Waters course. He also tied for ninth in 2013, when he made the last of his three appearances in the PGA Championship. Skinner, who has also made several starts in the PGA Senior Championship in recent years, has won six Georgia PGA events including the Atlanta Open and Section Championship twice each and the Match Play Championship, along with a number of victories in senior events.
In last year’s Georgia PGA qualifier for nationals, Skinner tied for third at Barnsley Resort after leading the tournament on the back nine of the final round. It would have been the first victory in the event for Skinner, who is a two-time Georgia PGA Player of the Year, most recently in 2014.
Like Skinner, Paul Claxton competed on both the Web.com and PGA Tours, spending a combined 20 seasons on them. Claxton has been one of the top players in the Georgia PGA section the past few years, earning Player of the Year honors in 2018. Claxton won the Georgia Open and GPGA Professional Championship in 2017 and three events in 2018, including the Section Championship and GPGA Senior Championship.
This will be Claxton’s third straight appearance at nationals. In his first start in the PGA club professional championship in Oregon in 2017, Claxton held the lead during the final round and wound up tie for third to qualify for the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte later that summer. Claxton also had the best finish among the Georgia pros at nationals last year in California, tying for 38th. Claxton, a native of Vidalia, is an instructor at Brunswick CC. He placed second in the Georgia PGA’s qualifier for the national club pro last year at Barnsley Resort, ending up one shot behind the winner to edge out Skinner for Player of the Year honors.
Claxton has already qualified for the 2019 PGA Senior Championship, which will be played at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., in May, the week after the PGA Championship.
Kyle Owen, the head pro at Dunwoody CC, won last year’s Georgia PGA Professional Championship in difficult weather conditions, shooting 1-under 143 for 36 holes to finish one shot ahead of Claxton and two in front of Skinner. This will be the fourth time he has qualified for nationals and the third year in a row. He played the full 72 holes last year in California for the first time.
Owen has been one of top players in the Georgia Section in recent years, earning Player of the Year honors in 2017 and placing among the top five three other times since 2013, including a fourth place finish last year.
Matthew Sanders has contended in the Georgia PGA Professional Championship each of the last two years, losing a playoff to Claxton at Champions Retreat outside Augusta in 2017 and tying for sixth last year. He got the final spot from the Georgia PGA Section for this year’s nationals, taking a playoff over Capital City Club’s J.P. Griffin. Sanders, an assistant at Oak Mountain in Carrollton, closed out the 2018 season with two strong showings, tying for third in the Section Championship at Sea Island Golf Club’s Retreat course before qualifying for the national club pro championship. This will be his second straight appearances at nationals.
Sam Hassell, the head pro at Cartersville CC., and Robby Bruns, an assistant at Augusta National, will be representing the Georgia Section for the first time in the PGA Professional Championship. Both players tied for third in last year’s Georgia PGA Professional Championship, two strokes behind Owen. Hassell either led or shared the lead for much of the final round at Barnsley Resort, while Bruns shot 3-under on the back nine in the final round under extremely difficult conditions to earn his spot at nationals.
Bruns was 11th on the 2018 Georgia PGA Player of the Year points list, while Hassell was 12th in 2017, when he lost a playoff for the final spot at nationals.
Georgia PGA members have been frequent top finishers at nationals for the past 25 years, with Stephen Keppler, Craig Stevens, Tim Weinhart and Skinner all making multiple appearances in the PGA Championship after qualifying through the PGA club professional championship.
Claxton’s tie for third in 2017 is the best finish by a Georgia PGA member since Skinner’s runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2010. The only other Georgia PGA member to post a top-10 finish since Skinner tied for ninth in 2013 was Karen Paolozzi, who posted the best finish by a female in the PGA Professional Championship, tying for seventh in 2016. Paolozzi, an assistant at Druid Hills GC at the time, has since left the golf business.
Among the other club pros competing at nationals is former Cherokee Town & CC instructor Kevin Roman, who qualified for the 2009 PGA Championship. Roman left Cherokee to become the Director of Instruction at Monterrey Peninsula CC in Pebble Beach, Calif.
Johan Kok, who grew up in Peachtree City, has been a constant presence on the leader board in the PGA Professional Championship since 2014, finishing among the top 20 four of the last five years to qualify for the PGA Championship four times. Kok, a club pro in Tennessee, is back in the field this year and is looking to qualify for the PGA Championship for a fifth time.