Until the Yamaha Atlanta Open Pro-Am, which was played the day before the tournament teed off, Sonny Skinner had never played a round of golf at White Columns Country Club, the tournament host.
Skinner shot 65 in the Pro-Am to claim low pro honors, then followed with a 65 the next day to lead by two strokes after the opening round.
After making 14 birdies in those two rounds, Skinner began the second and final day of the tournament with 11 straight pars, falling into a tie for the lead at that point with playing partners Bradley Smith and J.P. Griffin, both new to the Georgia PGA.
Just like the pro-am and opening round, Skinner spent the final round hitting fairways and greens and giving himself birdie opportunities on most of the holes. Unlike the previous two days, the putts did not fall for Skinner. He missed two short birdie attempts early in the round and never made a putt of any consequence the entire day.
But thanks to one superb tee shot on a par 3 and a deft pitch for a near tap-in on a par 5, Skinner did not pull off a final round Faldo (18 pars), carding two birdies against 16 pars.
That proved to be just enough to produce a narrow victory, as Skinner’s final round 70 gave him a 36-hole score of 9-under 135 and a 1-shot margin over Smith, who closed with a 69 to take second at 136. Griffin made a bogey on the final hole for a 71 and tied for third at 138 with Kyle Owen.
“I thought I had been here, but I did not remember one hole, and I always remember holes from courses I’ve played,” Skinner said.
White Columns, an excellent Tom Fazio design, proved to be a perfect fit for Skinner, who drives it straight but not especially long and hits lots of quality iron shots, but does not hole a sizeable percentage of his birdie efforts.
Skinner said he liked the way “the trees framed the fairways. It fit my eye on every hole and I could hit a good driver or 3-wood. The greens were holding, so you could hit it where you looked, and I hit a lot of greens.”
The veteran pro from Sylvester teaches part time at River Pointe in Albany and plays a heavy tournament schedule, competing in both Georgia PGA and national PGA events, along with occasional appearances on the Champions Tour.
“I think I only missed two greens yesterday and only one today,” Skinner said. “And in the pro-am, I only missed two.”
Skinner also enjoyed the pastoral drive through the North Fulton suburbs to White Columns, and jokingly offered that he might leave his long time home in south Georgia to move somewhere close to the course, while wondering if White Columns head pro Mitch Cook might have some part-time position on his staff available.
Skinner built his first round lead on the strength of seven birdies and no bogeys, notching birdies on four of White Column’s most inviting holes (11, 15, 16 and 7) and three of the most difficult (14, 2 and 4). The 65 put him two ahead of Smith and Griffin, and the three battled it out the final day, with Owen and Chris Nicol also contending.
Nicol, an assistant at Georgia Golf Center and a two-time Georgia PGA tournament winner, shot 70 and tied for fifth at 139. Also tying for fifth was 2007 Atlanta Open champion Bob Royak, who earned low amateur honors.
Smith, the Director of Instruction at Eagle’s Landing, had three birdies and no bogeys in his second round, pulling within a shot of Skinner with a birdie on the opening hole and tying for the lead when he holed a birdie putt at the short par-4 seventh.
Skinner regained the lead when he hit his tee shot on the par-3 12th to about three feet, but Smith answered when he reached the par-5 13th in two for a tying birdie. Skinner broke the tie when he birdied the short par-5 15th while Smith had to settle for par on the hole.
Smith almost forced a playoff when his birdie pitch from a mound bordering the 18th green narrowly missed. Skinner closed out his round with two solid pars, two-putting from relatively long range on both 17 and 18.
Like Skinner, Smith began his professional career as a tour player, competing on tours in his native Australia, Asia and the Latino America Tour before a bad back led to a switch from playing to teaching. While a junior in Australia, Smith had a chance meeting more than a decade ago with Skinner, who was playing in a Buy.com (now Web.com) Tour event at Smith’s home club.
Smith said he told Skinner that story and wanted to see if he remembered it. Smith went on to play college golf in the U.S. at UAB, and has played well in a handful of starts in Georgia PGA Section and Assistants’ events, beginning with a third place finish last year in the Assistants’ Championship. In three starts this year prior to the Atlanta Open, he teamed with Matthew Evans of Rivermont to tie for second in the Pro-Pro Scramble, won an Assistants’ event at Augusta Country Club and tied for second at Orchard Hills.
Griffin played at the mini-tour level after completing his college career at Georgia Southwestern, and has joined the staff at Cherokee Town & Country Club as an assistant. He had three top-5 finishes in Assistants’ Division events earlier this year and another top five in the Pro-Assistant Championship before his strong showing at White Columns.
A back nine 30 in the opening round shot Griffin into contention, and he moved into a tie for the lead the second day with back-to-back birdies at holes 10 and 11. But he pulled his tee shot on the par-3 12th into a tough lie and made double bogey. Birdies at the two par 5s on the back nine kept him within range of Skinner, but he went left off the 18th tee and had to chip out of the trees, resulting in a bogey
Owen, the head pro at Dunwoody Country Club, closed within one of Skinner with consecutive birdies at holes 4, 5 and 6, but parred the next 12 holes for a 70 and a 138 total.
A birdie at 14 got Nicol within two of Skinner’s lead, but he made double bogey at the short par-4 15th, and went birdie-bogey-birdie on the final three holes.
Royak, a member at St. Ives, had six birdies the second day and shot 68 to share fifth with Nicol at 139, winning low amateur by three over Mark Nickerson of Atlanta National, Erik Martin of Golf Club of Georgia, Sean Murphy of Druid Hills and Lilburn’s Ted Moon, a former runner-up in the Georgia Open who recently completed his college career at Belmont.
Moon and Murphy were contenders after opening rounds of 68, but both suffered double bogeys on the front nine the next day to fall back.
Tying for seventh at 140 were Joe Finemore of Big Canoe, Charlie King of Griffin Golf Course and Champions Tour member James Mason, who won the Atlanta Open in 2000, the last time it was played at White Columns.
Finemore was 7-under for his round after 17 holes the final day, shooting 31 on the back nine with an eagle on the 16th and adding two more birdies on the front before a closing double bogey at the par-5 ninth. King and Mason both shot back-to-back 70s.
Tying for 10th at 141 were Todd Ormsby of Highland Country Club in LaGrange, Stephen Keppler of Marietta Country Club, Clark Spratlin of Currahee Club in Toccoa and Evans.
Ormsby parred his first 10 holes in the second round, went 5-under on his next six with an eagle on the 13th, but finished bogey-bogey for a 69. Keppler has won three of the Georgia PGA’s four majors and owns 14 individual Section titles, but has yet to win the Atlanta Open. He shot 33 on his final nine for a second round 68.
Mark Anderson of Brunswick Country Club was 4-under for the day after 10 holes and one shot behind Skinner, but made back-to-back double bogeys at 12 and 13 to tie for 15th at 142 after a second round 70.
Skinner played on the PGA Tour for four years in the 1990s and spent 10 full seasons on what is now the Web.com Tour between 1993 and 2004. He became a Georgia PGA member in 2006 and has played primarily in Section events since, with occasional appearances on the Web.com and Champions Tours, the latter after he turned 50 in 2010.
Since joining the Georgia PGA, Skinner has earned Player of the Year honors in 2006 and last year, won the Match Play Championship in ’06 and the Section Championship in 2009 and ’12. He’s won both the Georgia Senior Open and Georgia PGA Senior Championship in recent years, and also made an impact at the national PGA level.
Skinner has twice finished second in the PGA Professional National Championship, the national championship for club professionals, and has earned national PGA Player of the Year and Senior Player of the Year honors.
Skinner was one of two Georgia PGA members to qualify for the U.S. Open in Sacramento, Calif., along with Danny Elkins of Georgia Golf Center, but missed the cut by one shot after scores of 72-74—146, making bogey on his final three holes.
Because he missed the cut, Skinner was able to compete in the PGA Professional national Championship, which began in Philadelphia the day the U.S. Senior Open ended.